Because they don’t work, it is not clear what they are for

Monday, February 21st, 2011

Perhaps this is why we are to believe all kinds of sinister things about children, since they seem like a half alien race in our midst. Since they do not work, it is not clear what they are for. They do not have sex, though perhaps they are keeping quiet about this, too. They have the uncanniness of things which resemble us in some ways but not in others. It is not hard to fantasize that they are collectively conspiring against us, in the manner of John Wyndham’s fable “The Midwich Cuckoos.” Because children are not fully part of the social game, they can be seen as innocent; but for the same reasons they are regarded as the spawn of Satan. The Victorians swung constantly between angelic and demonic views of their offspring

Terry Eagleton, On Evil.

 

I’ve just started reading Terry Eagleton’s new book because Evil is a topic that I am considering for my dissertation (the rhetoric of evil in a post-9/11 society, which would also mean some deep research into cultural perceptions of evil, past and present). What I find most interesting about this passage isn’t necessarily about children, but occurs in the second sentence where Eagleton writes, “Because they do not work, it is not clear what they are for.” When I read that sentence I stopped and thought, that is exactly what a friend of mine has said before about who we are and what that means.

I don’t remember how the topic came up, but I know I had been talking about teaching. (Is there ever a day I don’t think or talk about teaching? I highly doubt it.) The question came up in conversation that because we are both teachers, is “teacher” what defines us as humans. Ultimately, we decided no, we are many faces, but we both did agree that the wider world does view us as teachers. When we are seen in public, it isn’t through our scholarship, but through our teaching. Thus, we begin to define ourselves in conversation as “What do I do? Well, I’m a teacher…” before we say anything else about ourselves.

So the comment “Because they don’t work, it is not clear what they are for” really hit home for me. In this world, one of my main functions is to teach. Along with that, I think, I write, I read, I analyze, I evaluate, but those are all things related to school. I am many things outside of school, even though school and teaching are what takes up most of my time. I would argue, for instance, that this weekend I was many things.

But Eagleton’s sentence is a true and a sad one. We define people through what they seem to “do” out in the world. We often misjudge or misread people based on prior assumptions we have. For example, if we see someone sitting alone at a restaurant or at a party, we tend to think they are weird, a loner, aloof, lonely, or some other negative idea. In actuality, this probably isn’t the case. When I sat by myself for a while at my friend John’s party, it wasn’t because I felt suddenly like I was the weird girl or the loner. I sat down there alone because I wanted to listen to the Rolling Stones and just “feel” the atmosphere of the party. I really didn’t want to engage in conversation at that time. I needed a break. But the problem is most people wouldn’t see it that way and in about ten minutes, someone made it a point to come and talk to me because they were sad I was “alone.”

The world is a weird place and I don’t understand it much of the time, but I try to. In fact, I feel that understanding the world and those in it is part of my job as a human, especially in such a posthuman society where machines can solve problems and do the work for us, if we want them to. I also feel it is my job as an academic to pursue these ideas, this thinking. But I still feel that I am incorrectly defined and that most people are, too. It is just so easy to define others through the jobs they do in the world. Like a character on Mad Men said, “America is easy. Just pick a job and do it better than anyone else.” But then again, that job is all you will be to many in the crowd.

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