Manchildren, Adult Babies and Adultescents: The Infantile in Liquid Modernity

Matt Cornell | University of Amsterdam | Manchildren, Adult Babies and Adultescents: The Infantile in Liquid Modernity | Mireille Rosello & Joyce Goggin | 2015-2019

I analyze a recent and perhaps troubling turn in Western culture: infantilization. Economic precarity and the rise of immaterial labor have coincided with an explosion of infantile aesthetics and affects, found in everything from “cute” cat photos to childish YouTube videos. I connect these to emerging infantile subjectivities, like the “manchild” in Hollywood cinema, and the “adult baby” in advertising and reality television. Upper-middle class New Yorkers attend a preschool for adults, hoping to reconnect with their “inner toddlers,” while in Hollywood, body conscious movie stars turn to the “Baby Food Diet” to shrink their bodies.

What are the causes and consequences of this renewed focus on the infantile? How do these apparently disparate phenomena relate to the age of liquid modernity (Bauman) and the rise of immaterial labor (Hardt, Lazzarato), where stable identities have become unmoored by free markets? How have social media sites shaped and been shaped by infantile aesthetics and affects (Berlant)? Why has cuteness, with its curious mixture of tenderness and cruelty (Ngai), and its emphasis on miniaturization and neoteny (Virno) become a dominant aesthetic? How do we reconcile this cultural turn with the apparently paradoxical observation that children today “grow up too fast?” What does this state of arrested development entail for traditional gender roles? Finally, can the return to the infantile be a site for change and reinvention, or is it a retreat from social and political engagement?