On Interpassivity and the Decision to have Children

“Aerial View from the [email protected]” by williamcho is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

There is this project that American sitcoms have led me to understand is a part of the high school experience in that country, where young people are tasked with looking after an egg or bag of flour for a week, so that they learn how difficult it is to be responsible for a baby. This project, designed to address the teen pregnancy rate, is now implemented using a simulator doll, which is not just fragile but also provides many more of the cues that a real baby would – crying through the night, for example. See, the project says to teenagers, this is what your life will be like if you have a baby before you are ready for it.

But there is another care simulation that young people eagerly accepted, and which attracted the attention of no less than the popular philosopher Slavoj Žižek. The Tamagotchi was launched in 1996 as a handheld digital pet, and very quickly became a worldwide phenomenon among children. It was developed in a very specific context – children in small apartments in Japan longing for a pet, and was taken up in very different settings – suburban American children with real pets of their own. For Žižek, the toy was interesting because the enjoyment seemed to stem from the transfer of agency to this inanimate object (and the structures of the game design), such that the human responded to the object’s demands. This is why, rather than agreeing that this was a form of interactivity, Žižek chose to see this as interPASSIVITY.
Can we make a link from this back to the experience of looking after a baby? We could be a little naughty and do this as a thought experiment – setting aside for now all the ways in which parenting a live child is different from keeping a digital pet “alive”. The baby cries, we pick it up, try everything to make it stop. It is an Other that we are trying hard to respond to appropriately. For all that the baby is so tiny, it completely transforms our lives. Most honest parents would acknowledge that there is very little that they can control, especially in those early days. The baby, vulnerable as it is, holds all the cards when it has conscientious parents.

And what of the structures that shape our responses to this baby? The structures that shaped our decision to have this baby in the first place? Cultural norms, media messaging, and policy constraints (housing, legal, educational, medical, taxation, etc.) play such a significant role that one may wonder how much agency people have in the way they form their families. Yet Singapore’s plummeting birth rate is evidence that people DO resist the structures, as is the number of ways in which single parents, LGBT couples and other marginal family units work around the constraints.

And now we also have to bring back a key difference, one which is often not accounted for in all the discourses about parenting strategies, cultural norms, and policy justifications. Their vital difference is that unlike a digital pet, real humans have boundless creativity. There are children who are not accounted for in the structures, who undergo trauma when they are forced to fit in.
If we knew we would have to work without rules, would we still have one child, to say nothing of a second? If we accept that interpassivity is not a suitable paradigm, is there another that we can visualise?

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