Posthumanist Ethics of Parenting.
Naomi Morgenstern's Wild Child: Intensive Parenting and Posthumanist Ethics articulates an ethics of parenting that considers the liminal space of both childhood and parenting. This posthuman ethics of parenting acknowledges the contemporary changes of parental responsibility in a world that offers reproductive control through biomedical technologies as well as the liminal figuration of the "wild child" and does so without diminishing the agency of the child. This book investigates "how the particular narrative structures in which children are located register contemporary anxiety about postpatriarchal parental responsibility and about a posthumanist ethics of reproduction" (14). In this study, Morgenstern examines the parent-child relationships found in contemporary literature and film and grounds her analysis in the philosophies of Jacques Derrida as well as psychoanalytic theories of D. W. Winnicott and Jean Laplanche. The analyses in this volume focus on the figuration of the "wild child" that, Morgenstern explains, "is, among other things, a destructive child, as we shall see, but this destruction is inseparable from the fort-da work of survival, the work of surviving separation and surviving the other" (1-2). It's also important to note that the "wildness" of the "wild child" is often used metaphorically. She states, "'wildness,' as I use the term, will come to designate a space of ethical and ontological undecidability that helps bring beings into relation and that is inseparable from any attempt to render justice or protect the possibility of a future" (29).
From the selection of books and films analyzed in this text, it becomes apparent that the "wild child" is a product of uncertainty--uncertainty of coming into being for the child, uncertainty of reproduction in the adult, and uncertainty of a world where this relationship must form. To show this, Morgenstern analyzes several novels, including Emma Donoghue's Room, Cormac McCarthy's The Road, Toni Morrison's A Mercy, Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk about Kevin, as well as Alice Munro's short story "Miles City, Montana" and Denis Villeneuve's film Prisoners. These texts provide "examples of contemporary parents, or would-be parents, who find themselves contemplating the reproduction or sacrifice of life in the absence of any ethical certitude about what it means to choose to bring children into this world, in the wake of a humanist idealization of being that they can no longer rely on" (37). It is in this uncertainty that the figuration of the wild child appears to thrive.
It is clear from Morgenstern's perspective that a posthumanist maternal ethics is not a sentimental one. In her analysis of Donoghue's Room, she illustrates the parallels between the literal and metaphorical hostage situations the novel depicts. While held hostage in the literal sense by a man and forced to have a child in captivity, the mother character is also being held hostage in a metaphorical sense by her own child. Morgenstern explains, "it is not only a certain patriarchal experience of motherhood that takes women hostage, because mothers can also be held hostage by the inevitable demands of small children, those wild 'subjects-coming-into-being'" (45). She emphasizes that this posthuman ethics is one that "refuses to give up on this relationality" (62) and continues that the figuration of the wild child is not only the child who is born out of trauma, as appears in Room, but is, in fact, every child since "no child can survive without at some point holding someone (a parent, a guardian) hostage in order for it to come into being" (67). It is the uncertainty of coming into being that creates this wild child figuration and the need for posthumanist maternal ethics.
While the needs of the wild child can be viewed as hostile toward the parent, Morgenstern also emphasizes how posthumanist maternal ethics can be equally hostile toward the wild child. In her analysis of Morrison's A Mercy, she points out the cultural conditions in which the characters are forced to live and explains, "The mother's and daughter's situations remind us that the law forcing children to follow the condition of the mother ensures that all enslaved persons are excluded from participation in the symbolic (social and juridical) structures that constitute civil status" (108). However, the mother character resists this imposed non-subject status for her child in the only way she can: "Morrison's mothers claim the paramount value of a familial bond when they have no rights as mothers or as any other kind of subject; they manage to give to their daughters the gift of entitled subjecthood even as it comes in the form of literal or figurative death" (122). For Morgenstern, the posthumanist maternal ethics reclaims "an original space for ethics" (104) from cultural imposition.
In addition to this reclamation from cultural imposition, Morgenstern points out a logical flaw that, "For many liberal or 'humanist' thinkers committed to consent as a formative ethical category, the figure of the nonconsenting child, the child who does not, because she cannot, consent to being seriously complicates any attempt to make a just decision to reproduce" (133). This philosophical dilemma Morgenstern outlines between the parents' right to reproduce and the child's right to not be born is of particular interest in this study. Rather than concluding with a judgment on the rightness or wrongness of reproduction, however, Morgenstern articulates that "posthumanist ethics suggests that life is neither good nor bad 'in advance' of its arrival; to reproduce is to reproduce the undecidability of being and hence to reinvent the ethical every time" (135). In essence, it is impossible to make an ethical decision regarding the relationship to an individual who does not yet exist.
In her final chapter, Morgenstern extends this dilemma of inherent rights into a discussion of the right to have rights. She continues, "The posthumanist theorization of a right to have rights identifies an exit from the 'horrendous paradox' of liberal human rights discourse and practice, but it does so by exposing the concept of the human to its own indeterminacy and to its own dependence on a radically social supplement" (171). Despite this attempt at side stepping cultural authority, the question still remains, "How do we reconcile the desire and demand to protect children with the ethical uncertainty of what it means to have brought them into being in the first place?" (176). And while there is no clear answer to this question, the study suggests that this relationship is always under (re)evaluation:
Posthumanist ethics is an ethics of "forlorn coincidence" and it places in suspense, in the suspense of a decision about reproduction that can never, finally, be made, the "precise location" of a parental responsibility that, promising and failing, encounters every child in its "singleness," every child as the "world resurfaced," and every child as incurably wild. (189)
Ultimately, Morgenstern argues, "Every child, in other words, is a wild child responding to the ruse of personhood. Every adult (everyone) is responsible for all those others whom they first and continuously call into being as if they were persons. This is what it means to recognize a posthumanist ethics of language becoming and of the wilderness of every child" (206).
By investigating the complex dialectic of parent-child relationships through a lens of posthumanist maternal ethics, Wild Child challenges the ideals of patriarchal humanism that are all too often conceived as societal norms. This insightful study will be useful to scholars of twenty-first-century literature and film as well as cultural studies. In addition, scholars of children's and young adult literature may find this study useful for its analysis of the construction of twenty-first-century childhood.
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