On Friday night in Paresky Auditorium, Jack Halberstam gave a lecture titled “Wild Child: The Anarchy of Childhood.” The speech was the keynote address for the Worlds Of Wonder conference on the queerness of childhood. Starting at 7 p.m., Halberstam was introduced by conference organizers Assistant Professor of History Anna Fishzon and Anastasia Kayiatos, a scholar who Fishzon described as her “partner in queer crime.”
Halberstam is a professor at USC and the author of five books. Kayiatos described Halberstam as the perfect person to speak on the “tangled relationship of queerness and childishness.” The speech was on the ways in which childhood is similar to anarchy. “A lot of political systems which we aspire to are systems with which we have very little experience, but childhood is a form of anarchy.”
Halberstam then launched into an anecdote about watching Life of Pi with his kids. The children were completely unconcerned when the protagonist’s parents died, but “when the orangutan was killed, the kids went sobbing from the room,” because they “identified with the nonhuman creatures in the film.”
To start answering the question of why, he moved on to a exploration of children’s animation. It has “different values” from other media, and children will watch films repeatedly, unlike adults. Furthermore, children “channel anarchic forms of resistance” while simultaneously exemplifying conformance. “We know the world can’t be whatever we want it to be. The child does not.” This changes the narratives they appreciate and it also explains “why they’re so inspirational and obnoxious.” Children also experience time differently from adults, experiencing it in an “extended present tense.” Adults live in a world of success, in both the progression and achievement senses, while children live in failure, never living up to parental expectations. Halberstam then moved on to discussion of the wild child. There were many stories, and some research accounts, of children in the 18th century being raised by animals. In real life cases, researchers observed that the children could not learn language. He used this idea to formulate a theory where animals are born into a language, and the necessary infancy preceding speech is what separates humans from animals. This means “the infant is not really human.”
If the wild child is just pre-speech, however, it follows that all humans pass through that wild phase, and the degree of one’s normalcy as an adult is the degree to which one passed through it; “No child is normal.” Children exhibit a type of neither hetero- nor homosexual queerness, and are the “encapsulation of all the normativity and the antinormativity of society.” Openness makes them both curious and malleable.
Halberstam then discussed the film Where the Wild Things Are, which he claims, “refuses to promise that it gets better.” It is a dark movie, which accepts that when a child says “it’s not fair,” the child is correct; he “lives in the world of the sovereign.” This deserves a better answer, argues the book and film. The film’s other messages are that “life ruins people who can’t fit in.” Otherwise, “when you no longer need to be ruled, you’ve entered adulthood.”
During the question period, Halberstam encapsulated his point.“The child is the activist that the adult can never be,” because when the child says “It’s not fair,” they mean “Life is s**tty.”