Globalization and the Image
University of Alberta, Edmonton
Imaging the Child in Neo-Imperial Missions of Globalization
Do not cite without permission of the author.
When the house is guarded, the street is policed, the shares are purchased, then we feel safe, defended against the indeterminate actions of others.
People think they can do whatever they feel like doing
I hate rich people. I would like to take revenge against them.
If you have money, you have friends. If you have no money, you have no friends.i
In "Technologies of 'the Child,'" Jo-Ann Wallace argues importantly
that the figure of the child, unequal correlative of Enlightenment man,
is the "repository and projection of all that is repressed"
by various arrangements of theoretical knowledge (297); the child, in
other words, is the aporia of theory, the thing that gets effaced in order
to set theory to work (Spivak 429). This observation helps explain why
in Children and the Politics of Culture Sharon Stephens notes an absence
of the child in the burgeoning literature on globalization. If the link
between children and globalization has not been visible in adult-centred
theory (a point I will return to at the end of this paper), the child
is nevertheless a prominent symbolic figure in the theatre of globalization,
most specifically in the discourse of child rights. Since theories of
the child rose along with theories of man, however, with the critique
of one, social panic sets in around the other (Wallace "Technologies"
297). Consequently, as the global enterprise of neo-liberal man gets challenged
by such instruments as the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child
(the CRC), we need to ask how the child serves as a site of containment
for displaced anxieties of globalization.ii
Within the human rights discourse, the child as repository of repressed knowledge poses a problem: while the child carries polymorphous symbolic freight, it serves to homogenize material differences. Although the concept of the child as a normalizing figure is not often challenged, anthropologist Jo Boyden cautions that the child created by the CRC excludes its counterpart of street children whose disappearance from urban centres from São Paolo to Seattle gets effaced in debates over child rights. As definitions of permissible behavior set out in various legal instruments become more precise, she states, "so judgment[s] about abnormal childhoods" become more unsympathetic (Boyden 187).iii In noting that the growing unease over the suffering of innocent child-victims is accompanied by an increasingly unforgiving perception of anti-social children, Boyden specifies a relationship between image and index: the child is constructed on the trace of and makes invisible its material Other. Exceeding the image burdened by the Enlightenment values of naturalness and innocence, street children elude the frame of visibility, leaving only a resistant trace in the ambiguous figure of the street child. In Homi Bhabha's formulation, "[w]e are no longer confronted with an ontological problem of being but with the discursive strategy of the moment of interrogation" (49).
Putting the universal figure into question, when children are imaged as children, the romance of protected childhood begins to confront its material limit. Children-as-children demand recognition beyond those values encoded by the singular figure and consequently carry potential to intervene in the imperialist ideology that forges the child-beneficiary of economic man as a subject to be (re)formed for the circuit of capital production. With the return of repressed anxieties that surface when the mask of innocence is removed, historical children are in danger of becoming ostensibly invisible or of reconfiguring in the realm of unprotected visibility; in the street, for example, the singular child becomes feral and multiplies into "gang." In other words, the child degenerates to 19th-century typologies, slipping via the street from innocence to intransigence to become the juvenile delinquent, visible marker of "unimaginable communit[ies]" (Suleri 3).
This illiberal child has a dangerous cultural opponent in the child located occasionally in the current surfeit of financial magazines of which the 1998 special edition of Forbes is paradigmatic. This publication is rife with the tropes of imperialism, for the Forbes man of the "concrete jungle" and his freely-traded offspring appropriate earlier figurations of territorial imperialism (Brother 297, Slemon 7). Within Forbes, like Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders, the (ad)venture(r)-capitalist engages in "First Encounters" that enable colonization of no less than the entire universe (Davidoff 303). There are few child-figures in Forbes.iv When present, however, they provide the raison d'être for the hero's "relentless pursuit" of capital gains. While young girls are metonymically imaged as "packages" to be provided for through the borderless enterprise of financial speculation (Liberty Mutual 281), young boys are always-already miniature replicas of their successful male parent. Selling not only life insurance and mutual bonds but gender and racial stereotypes, these figures reinforce the logic of economic imperialism. In this accounting, the child inserted into the global cash nexus is a functional principle of both accumulation and consumption and as such is both psychological asset and material liability.
According to an article in US News & World Report, one of many such articles, this child costs parent-citizens one and a half million US dollars to raise to the age of majority (Longman 51). With such pressures and expectations, there is no ethical room in a Forbesist economy for the "estimated 250,000 children who die each week around the world" because of poor nutrition, sanitation, and health care. (Elshtain 431) Rather, evading responsibility for the redress of structural inequities, corporatist logic records a company's investment in the public interest by promoting bourgeois familial imagery, thereby, displacing the financial burden onto an idealized family for which homo economicus provides private security. This security is not only economic but physical, for the Forbes-man installs solid locks to secure his home "from fear of . . . invasion" from, as history records, a highly visible threat to middle-class security: the street child indexing the socio-economic fringes inhabited by street children (Ingersoll-Rand 119).
As ethnographer Tobias Hecht observes in his study of Brazilian street children, while street children have been used to "exemplify the vulnerabilities of childhood," they have also been refashioned "as harbingers of the danger posed to society" (173). Children of the poor often use the street as a place to work and socialize, yet the mass media fuels moral panic about the urban young by rendering stereotypes of groups of children as delinquents. Child-actor Vinicius de Oliveira, whom director Walter Salles discovered working as a shoeshine boy in Rio's airport, concurs: neither he nor his character in Central Station is a street child, he states, and life in a slum quarter does not translate to delinquency. Absent in Forbes, the street child can be located in Brazilian films such as Hector Babenco's Pixote (1981) and Salles's Central Station (1998) which disrupt neo-liberal fictions about street children.
I limit my reading in this paper to Central Station, which allegorizes the production of new affective social relations. The relationship between the two central characters is initially antagonistic. Dora is a retired school teacher who works as a professional letter writer in Rio's central train station. At the end of each day, she reads through these letters and tears most up, saving a few for possible future mailing. Her adversary is a feisty nine-year-old, Josué, whose mother approaches Dora to write a letter to the father Josué has never met. When his mother is killed in the street, the now homeless boy begins to pester Dora, who entices him to her home and then sells him to a black market adoption ring. Eventually, Dora has second thoughts and intervenes to rescue the boy and help him find his father when a friend suggests he will be sold on the international market for human organs.
One of the problems limiting the effect of such films as Central Station lies with their reception. Salles tempers harsh socio-political issues with a rich iconographic spectacle, drawing several reviewers to neglect its historical indexing to read a tale of individual redemption, superficiality, or predictable cuteness.v While Salles minimizes his critique of brutality and corruption to foreground positive aspects of human relationship, he posits a rationale for responsibility beyond nuclear family in condensed images referencing the transgression of taboo prohibitions, in "the impossible" of consuming the sacrificial child's organs and killing the juvenile delinquent. Reading a narrative of individual redemption makes "the impossible" of child-murder invisible; the (re)viewer's eye slides aporetically over the image to disavow the uncivilizing act. vi
Significantly, at the end of his journey, Josué does not find his father but two elder brothers. Foregrounding fraternity to provide an antidote to the disease of social alienation, Salles images the political event in its extremity in a brief scene that remains invisible to those reading from the lens of imperial-liberalism. An incident in which a youth steals a transistor radio, is caught by a vigilante thug and shot on the spot is shocking in its disruption of the "sentimental" narrative of individual child-rescue, but even more shocking is this scene's invisibility to (re)viewers when one considers that Salles based the shooting on an actual event. Indexing the material conditions of the narrative's possibility, the disruptive presence of the murdered youth haunts the myth of "universal" brotherhood.
Salles thus does not present universal brotherhood but rather a reconfigured affiliation that entails the intervention of the invited guest, of a summoned Dora, who acquires the moral conscience prerequisite to developing affective relationships beyond "the family." In Salles's formula, this work of child-rescue is performed at the level of the individuated child which unless read adjacent to the structural problems marked by the socio-political margins haunting the text sanctions a prefigurative logic of child-saving predicated on its Other of child-killing; in Central Station, the gang of street children shown in Pixote, for instance, is the aporetic bind of universal brotherhood. Read on the allegorical level as the carnivalization of the civilizing enterprise, the journey undertaken by Dora and Josué spectacularly renders the remedy for spiritual alienation under military regime as individual salvation; on the literal level the film critiques economic exploitation by referencing its radical limits: the over-consumption of commodities as the harvesting of the child's organs and distributive injustice as the killing of the juvenile thief.
In an economy of knowledge grounded on the rationality of sight, Central Station demonstrates, brutality towards children is correlative with their elided visibility.vii To combat the myth of childhood as a space of protection, the CRC addresses children's invisibility by making them partial agents rather than mere objects of intervention, the occasional object of the unencumbered individual who may or may not intercede on their behalf. The notion of protection is generally based on unacknowledged dependencies and power relations. In the logic of free-trade economy, protection is proprietary, limited to the million-dollar Forbes-child. Not distributive justice, Forbes ads certify, but individual responsibility, or protectionism, to which ideology the bourgeois child is to be inculcated, is a fundamental value of the free-willed economist, and while bourgeois children might expect to profit from this logic, invisible poor children cannot (Cigna in Forbes 80).viii
Take the example of a recently sanctioned visible child-a politicized Elián González emptied of material particularity and reconfigured as the prototypal neo-liberal heir apparent. The media narrative of Elián hardly needs recounting. Essentially, by the detainment of a young boy for seven months in the United States and his separation from both nuclear and immediate-extended family, US authorities sacrificed a boy's right to affective security-his right to family, home, and cultural community. In this political battle, the child functioning as a site of symbolic production legitimated for many an ideological inversion, from defending "traditional" western family values to vehemently opposing the reunification of the nuclear family.
This inversion is possible because the child functions doubly. As himself, Elián was made a typological object of Christian sacrifice and salvation, a sacred child bearing the Disneyfied seeds of capitalism garnered for a greater celestial or fiscal Father (Jenkins 16). In addition, Elián was made an "organizing principle of the nation-state in its relations with . . . its own citizens and those of the . . . developing world" (Wallace "Technologies" 286). The political question became: which nation makes the better parent? The answer: which kind of family is not as important as which kind of state. Elián-as-consumer-of-commodities functions to displace attention from worldwide protest over US imperialism formulated as the Helms-Burton law. Rescuing the child figured as the messiah of democracy reinforces the myth of redemption, thereby, assuaging guilt for imposing inhumane embargoes on food, educational, and medical supplies that affect the "gang" of Cuban children made invisible. Wiping "the moral slate clean," salvation of the solitary child leads to a diminished sense of responsibility for the hardships these economic sanctions impose (Scheper-Hughes 186).
While the work of bourgeois childhood supports corporatist claims that capital investment is not only an act of individual but, by implication, social responsibility, this responsibility rests on voluntary acts of charity that do nothing to address structural inequities and, ultimately, eschew social responsibility. This truth is bluntly expressed in USAmerican economist Milton Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom:ix Social responsibility is "a fundamentally subversive doctrine," he states. "Few trends could so thoroughly undermine the very foundations of our free society as the acceptance by corporate officials of a social responsibility other than to make as much for their stockholders as possible" (133). To counter the ideology of voluntarism, intervention concerned to ameliorate the conditions of existence for children must take children's right to social welfare and partial self-determination into the theoretical account.
As feminist debate teaches, the work of grass roots organizations, the "real front against globalization," is inseparable from theoretical intervention (Spivak 416). My final point, then, illustrates how, despite radical commitment to ameliorating unequal conditions imposed by economic globalization, in adult-centred theory, children are invisible. To be taken seriously, children need to secure not only moral and emotive rhetorical value, but the theoretical import generally reserved for adults.
I close with an image in The Economist which anthropologist Arturo Escobar analyzes in Encountering Development. Noting that this article appeared "the week prior to" the Earth summit meeting . . . on Environment and Development held in Rio in 1992, Escobar describes in the accompanying photograph "an undifferentiated mass of dark people, the 'teeming masses' of the Third World," and in so doing marks an aporia of the child (210).x Sharon Stephens, child researcher as well as anthropologist, reads the same Economist photograph and sees not a horde of "people" but "a mass of black children" (13, emphasis added).xi Notably, while the child functions as an organizing principle in the discourse of development, the child remains invisible in Escobar's interventionary critique, symptomatically presented in a chapter entitled "Power and Visibility" (emphasis added).xii This excision of the child from an analysis of development is curious, since historically both marginalized peoples and children have been managed through representations of the child that enable various civilizing missions, including the mission of development (Wallace "Waterbabies" 176).xiii To effectively intervene in economic globalization, I suggest, is to further problematize development theory by incorporating children into adultist accounts.
In sum, a theoretical account that brings children into the discursive equation must decode the legitimating narrative of salvation and (re)formation authorized by the child. To set to work the problem of implementing children's rights, these rights must be brought into the discourse of development, for to redress problems of distributive injustice necessitates conjoining individual protectionist impulses with children's rights established by the CRC to partial self-determination and social welfare. Ultimately, our recognitions and identifications-whether or not we choose to question images of childhood and render children visible in theory-structure our relation to knowledge and condition our abilities to forge new affective relations.
i Respectively, Bill McSweeney in Security, Identity and Interests and
three unnamed Bangladeshi street children in the traveling art exhibition
Children of the Wind, Les Enfants du Vents organized by Canadian curator
ii Following the formulation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, unencumbered civil man became impotent in Cold War efforts to forge a binding treaty addressing economic and social rights. The rights movement, therefore, requiring a new symbolic labourer carrying additional ethical and emotional value, deployed the child as an object of global politics. By encoding an additional set of rights including social welfare and self-determination for children, this figural shift from universal man to child enabled a partial displacement in a rights regime that had previously been primarily civil and political. In other words, the inclusion of the affective and moral currency that the child contributes makes universal social welfare conceptually possible. However, just as the child coexists in unequal relationship with economic man, so those rights enabled by the child are subordinate to civil and political rights prioritized by free-trade logic, those rights enjoyed without an entailing responsibility to a larger society.
iii Michael Freeman in The Moral Status of Children discusses the James Bulger case, the murder of a toddler by two 10-year-old boys in February, 1993. Freeman observes, "we are prepared to impose criminal responsibility on [children at the age of ten] . . ., but we are less willing to accept the correlativity of responsibility and rights" (28). In the Bulger case, he argues, the trial processes and sentence were "in no way adapted to the needs of 11-year-olds" (109). Freeman contrasts a similar case over one hundred years earlier when in 1861 two 8-year-olds were convicted of the manslaughter of a 2-year-old child. The Bulger case could have been treated differently; James Bulger's killers "were not given the opportunity of a manslaughter verdict" and unlike the earlier judge, the judge in this case "seemed oblivious to the welfare of the children Thompson and Venables (251-2).
iv There are slightly more women in Forbes. Here, the figural woman literally stands behind her man. She provides for her children with the help of security companies, she sports expensive jewelry if she is young and superficially beautiful, or she receives breakfast in bed if she is the office helpmeet, in which case, the question becomes "who is she sleeping with?" (Westin in Forbes 395).
v See, for example, Peter Brunette, Arthur Lazer, and Janet Maslin.
vi Child actor Fernando Ramos da Silva who plays Pixote in Hector Babenco's film (1981) experienced a brief moment of sanctioned visibility through his acting success. Unable to get more work because he was almost illiterate, da Silva dropped back into the realm of unprotected visibility, where at the age of seventeen street-child da Silva was mistaken for a criminal and shot to death by military police.
vii Discussing Richard Rorty on mirroring, Bhabha notes that the West's "primary relation to objects and ourselves is analogous to visual perception" (49). The panic over child abuse in the last decades of the 20th century belies notions of the privatized/invisible space of the family as a space of protection.
viii The Canadian government, for instance, acknowledged in its apology to First Nations communities for the harm done by the residential school policy, that protection is in fact the worst form of oppression.
ix Samir Amin, "one of the most influential economists today," director of Forum Tires Monde in Dakar, Senegal, and author of books such as Imperialism and Unequal Development, Eurocentrism, and Empire of Chaos, says scathingly of Friedman, "Milton Friedman is the wizard-in-chief of our contemporary Oz. He understood what they [the pure economic pundits] wanted to hear: that wages are always too high (even in Bangladesh), that profits are still not high enough to offer the affluent sufficient investment incentives, and so on. Hence his success, despite his muddleheadedness (he might say anything, and then its opposite, depending on who is listening and when) and his proven intellectual dishonesty. Those are the very qualities sought in a wizard-in-chief, worthy of a Nobel Prize" (142).
x The 'lesson' [he critiques] is population: the expanding masses of the 'third world' have to be curbed if sustainable development is to be achieved" (210).
xi Escobar's inattention to age may or may not have to do with the shortcomings of recall, for his vaguely dated and incorrectly titled article is missing from his bibliography.xi
xii For an elaboration of the parent-child developmental paradigm and a brief overview of development and dependency theories see Kate Manzo's "Modernist Discourse and the Crisis of Development Theory" in Studies in Comparative International Development 26.2 (Summer 1991): 3-36. The analogy is often implicit in development literature but explicit in such earlier colonial literature as Katherine Mayo's Mother India contested by such post-colonial writers as Anita Desai, Bessie Head, Jamaica Kincaid, and Edna O'Brien.
xiii What is it that makes it necessary in a critique of population control that Escobar not see children as children? To do so, would require the impossible recognition of the limit-text for reproductive rights theory, since unprotected children are that which is exorbitant to wholesale reproduction. (This is not, in this debate, to sanction other than choice.)
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