Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Child Labour, Yummy Style

One aspect of current thinking on child-rearing, and now orthodoxy among health professionals and the “yummy mummies” they inspire, is what has been branded, “baby-led weaning,” whereby baby is encouraged to determine what, when and how she will make the transition from a milk to a solid-food diet. This means that at “mealtimes” – and it is important now to distance ourselves from this term, for mealtimes are an adult invention, not a baby-led one – the one person in the room yet to have even approached the age of reason is the one person in the room to decide upon the amount and kind of calories she will consume, in the process distributing those calories in a manner that constitutes them as things to play with as well as to eat, things to ingest in jest; enthusiasts for baby-led weaning defend it as the best way of making food easy and fun for baby and you.

The most recent large-scale survey on the topic in the UK revealed that one quarter of all boys, and one third of all girls, between the ages of two and nineteen, are overweight or obese. And the problem, we are told, is getting worse, another recent survey predicting that the numbers are set to rise to sixty-three per cent of all children in the not-too-distant future. The question all but asks itself: how, when we are making such efforts to initiate our babies into the practice of eating and drinking, are our babies growing up to be more and more fat?

But this is the wrong question. For, we should rather ask: why do we continue to make such efforts to initiate our babies into the practice of eating and drinking, when it is clear that, at the very least, these efforts do not improve our babies’ relationship to eating and drinking?

If we ask the question in this way, then an answer very quickly presents itself. And it is this: the commitment to baby-led weaning flourishes, not in spite of the fact that it hands over control of food and drink to someone whose IQ, we are reliably informed, is less than twenty, not in spite of the fact that it results in food wastage and mess, not in spite of the fact that it makes it much more difficult to monitor the amount of food and drink that baby consumes, not in spite of the fact that mealtime loses definition and flows outwards into the whole of the waking day, and not in spite of the fact that it at least does not ameliorate the poor relationship to food and drink that leads to obesity in our children, but actually because of these effects. Baby-led weaning, like many of the practices recommended to child-rearers these days, is a very effective way of preoccupying us with fun, burdening us with ease, and generating low-lying but persistent feelings of anxiety by means of low-level but continuous opportunities for gratification.

Baby-led weaning: surely too innocent a practice to produce such effects? On the contrary, it is precisely by way of innocent practices that the populations of modern, western democracies, so attuned to explicit restrictions on their freedom, are controlled. Indeed, to the extent that baby-led weaning is actually liberating – of children, from culturally determined constraints upon eating and drinking; and of adults, from the expectation that they assume authority and impose agenda – it counts as that mode of control that is most effective of all. By removing the boundaries around those times of day when food is prepared and consumed, and around the various stages of maturity (which are put into a melting pot, out of which babies emerge as leaders and carers as led), it gives rise to a grazing populace, unused to the definition and deferral of gratification that separates us from all other animals. By literally eating into the time and space we might use for pursuit of the “higher pleasures,” as Mill famously described them, baby-led weaning fashions us as mere pigs at the trough. 

Furthermore, when we consider these let-it-all-hang-out effects of baby-led weaning, in conjunction with what has been an immeasurable increase in recent times in the dissemination of norms of child-rearing - how many calories are optimal for baby, what range of foods and textures are best for baby, when baby can be expected to hold her bottle, to hold her spoon, to hold her cup, and so on and so on – norms that, because they are thought of as knowledge, are not rejected as the unacceptable restriction of baby's freedom that a regimen of mealtimes and menus is regarded as, there emerges into full view just that combination, of “freedom”-where-there-should-be-constraint and “knowledge”-where-there-should-be-judgment, which is the tie that binds us now in our “liberty.”


The philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer writes, in Truth and Method, that “Man is characterized by the break with the immediate and the natural that the intellectual, rational side of his nature demands of him.” Quoting Hegel, he continues, “[Man] is not, by nature, what he should be.” The task for human beings, then, is what in German is called Bildung, which means something like, cultivation, edification, formation. We humans must make ourselves human, by turning from ourselves towards something more abstract, by “sacrificing particularity for the sake of the universal.” Gadamer continues:

To recognize one’s own in the alien, to become at home in it, is the basic movement of spirit, whose being consists only in returning to itself from what is other...Hence all...Bildung...is merely the continuation of a process of Bildung that begins much earlier. Every single individual who raises himself out of his natural being to the spiritual finds in the language, customs, and institutions of his people a pre-given body of material which, as in learning to speak, he has to make his own. Thus every individual is always engaged in the process of Bildung and in getting beyond his naturalness, inasmuch as the world into which he is growing is one that is humanly constituted through language and custom.

Seen in this light – seen, that is, from a perspective for which getting beyond our naturalness is the quintessentially human task – baby-led weaning appears as a truly sinister development. For, to the extent that it would remove even the most fundamental ways in which the world is alien to us, it would also remove the essentially formative effect of our efforts to recognize ourselves in the alien. When the world comes to you, you do not have to make yourself at home in the world; when mealtimes are your times, you do not have to exert yourself in that basic movement of spirit which consists in returning to yourself from what is other. Gadamer is right to identify the building blocks of Bildung in those experiences we have when very young, in those early encounters with the language, customs and institutions of our society. He is mistaken, however, in his assumption that these early encounters can be relied upon to persist, for it is precisely these early encounters that our society is denying us, as the alien nature of language, customs and institutions ebbs away before the baby-led, child-centred, student-as-partner, flexible-working, design-your-own, just-for-you orthodoxy of our time. Baby-led weaning: the first step in a lifetime of failure to make ourselves human.   

Ergonomics, it turns out, is the science of our time. Derived from two Greek words, ergon (work) and nomoi (natural laws), it describes the study of how to fit the world of work to the natural condition of the worker, rather than force the natural condition of the worker to form itself by work; the study, we might say, of how to make work easy and fun. Before we have the time or the space to exert ourselves, we are already achieving what we aimed to achieve. Our most basic instincts are responded to, so readily that we encounter no obstacle that we can make sense of, meet no resistance that we can comprehend, confront no limitation to make us feel that we are, after all, only human. But instinct is a poor substitute for effort. For we are not, by nature, what we should be; not feeling that we are only human reduces us to a mode of being less than human. The world into which we are growing is one that is no longer humanly constituted through language and custom, but animally constituted through ease and through fun.

It is worth quoting here, Matthew Crawford’s The Case For Working With Your Hands, whose argument for getting out of the office and into the workshop is perfectly aligned with my argument for not being led by baby. Pointing to the formative effects of engagement with materials as resistant, as unergonomic, as old motorcycles, whose moral significance lies in their occasioning the exercise of human judgment, Crawford writes:

The necessity of such judgment calls forth human excellence. In the first place, the intellectual virtue of judging things rightly must be cultivated, and this is typically not the product of detached contemplation. It seems to require that the user of a machine have something at stake, an interest of the sort that arises through bodily immersion in some hard reality, the kind that kicks back. Corollary to such immersion is the development of what we might call a sub-ethical virtue: the user holds himself responsible to external reality, and opens himself to being schooled by it. His will is educated – both chastened and focused – so it no longer resembles that of a raging baby who only knows that he wants.

A raging baby who only knows that he wants, even a raging baby who only knows what he wants, is not the extent of our intellectual and ethical potential; today’s endlessly-refreshed feeling that the world is ours for the taking is not liberatory but constraining, not uplifting but degrading.

It turns out that the ever increasing problem of the heavy formlessness of our bodies, burdened with ease and laden with fun, is but a physical manifestation of an at least equally worrying heaviness and formlessness: of mind, of intellect, of soul, of spirit. If, in the not-too-distant future, sixty-three percent of all UK children, between the ages of two and nineteen, will be physically overweight or obese, than what percentage will be intellectually so? What percentage, in short, will have been denied the opportunity of making themselves human?


To discover why it is that modern, western society conspires to bring our children to such a pass, one need look no further than to the work of the Italian radical, Paolo Virno, whose brilliant analysis of post-productive economies, in the essay “The Ambiguity of Disenchantment,” describes the manner in which they “put to work,” not the disciplined bodies and minds required by productive economies, but the so-called “soft” skills that constitute much of what now counts as labour, the “non-stop inertia,” as Ivor Southwood terms it, in which not having a job is almost indistinguishable from having a job (indeed, in the case of “zero-hour contract” jobs, entirely indistinguishable). And what are these “soft” skills? They are, according to Virno,

the complex of inclinations, dispositions, emotions, vices, and virtues that mature precisely in a socialization outside of the workplace...: habituation to uninterrupted and nonteleological change, reflexes tested by a chain of perceptive shocks, a strong sense of the contingent and the aleatory, a nondeterministic mentality, urban training in traversing the crossroads of differing opportunities. These are the qualities that have been elevated to an authentic productive force.

Think for a moment, of what it is for a baby to lead herself through weaning, “free” to eat when and where she feels like it and to try out whatever lies within her reach: habituation to nonteleological change?; reflexes tested by a chain of perceptive shocks?; a strong sense of the contingent and the aleatory?; a nondeterministic mentality?; training in coping with differing opportunities? “The ‘professionalism’ supplied and demanded today,” writes Virno, “consists of skills gained during the prolonged and precarious period preceding work.” And we are never too young, it seems, to begin to develop these skills, never too young to learn to be “professional,” never too young to be “put to work.”

 “Work,” writes Gadamer, “is restrained desire”; hence its essentially formative effect. But Gadamer’s writing is dated. For, nowadays, work is all your heart desires: undefined; untimed; unspaced; uncertain; unsecured; unregulated. In short, easy and fun. When I asked an acquaintance of mine, who had recently changed jobs, how he found his new position, he replied: “Great! It’s so nice to be playing with grown-ups.” While the babes are at work, it seems the men are at play...


In Victorian times, when a baby was born, the expression used was that there was “a stranger in the house.” So indifferent-sounding to our ears! So cold and uncaring! In our times, when a baby is born, we immediately go “skin-to-skin,” holding our naked offspring against us within as few seconds as possible of her birth. But the urgency with which this first contact is promoted by those who assist and advise a woman during pregnancy and childbirth, ought to give us pause. What can be at stake? The answer: nothing short of ensuring that the world never feels like anywhere but home, and other people like anyone but me. The little stranger had at least the opportunity the make herself at home in the world. The little stranger had at least the chance to make herself human.    

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