1. Benjamin makes these observations across a number of essays including: “The Cultural History of Toys,” “Old Toys,” “Toys and Play,” “The Lamp,” “A Berlin Chronicle” and “On the Mimetic Faculty.” He proposes that children’s ability to come to know the world in and through their bodily senses and to physically enact that which they imagine and desire is a revolutionary cognitive mode—revolutionary in that it refuses to accept the given world and aims to create something that more fully aligns with human needs and desires (see also Susan Buck-Morss, 262-275). [return to page 1]
2.The politics of solidarity and transformation is radical compared to the philanthropic paternalism of the Dickensian mode of social critique, a politics whose goal is to protect (rather than empower) society’s most vulnerable beings. I elaborate on this point below.
3.England’s Poor Laws date back to the Elizabethan era, when parishes provided relief to the waged and unwaged poor, ensuring (at least in theory if not always in practice) a minimum standard of subsistence was met for all. By the 1800s, as capitalist relations increasingly drove the poor from their small plots of land, employing them at below-subsistence wages, the plight of the poor had become a national preoccupation. Reformers blamed the old Poor Laws for obstructing progress, arguing that they led to rising poor rates (e.g., taxes) and falling wages. In continuing to provide relief to the able-bodied, but tying it to the brutality of the workhouse, and calibrating the amount awarded to fall below the lowest labor market wages, the 1834 Act was as much about changing people’s expectations as it was about “fixing” the economy. According to E.P. Thompson, the Act “was perhaps the most sustained attempt to impose an ideological dogma, in defiance of the evidence of human need, in English history” (295; see also Himmelfarb).
4. Bakhtin argued that the modern novel, with its polyphony of voices and its attention to the embodied, lived experience of individuals draws attention to the repression and inequality of the dominant social order—a form he saw as emerging as early as Rabelais’s 16th century works, Gargantua and Pantagruel (see Rabelais and his World).
5. Describing the swaddled baby, Dickens writes that Oliver “might have been the child of a nobleman or beggar,” (5) emphasizing the social origins of inequality. This passage, however, also signals Oliver’s actual (though hidden from him) noble origins, a fact that lies in tension with Dickens’ intended social critique.
6. None of this takes away from the fact that the power of Dickens’ social critique is compromised by his anti-Semitic demonization of Fagin, and his positioning of Oliver as an aristocrat-in-waiting (Holt, Eagleton).
7. Nine film and TV renditions of the novel are listed in the Independent Movie Database, www.imdb.com. I discuss here the three most prominent “talkies” made for distribution in movie theatres.
8. In the original story, Oliver intends to foil the burglary, but doesn’t get the chance. Startled by Sikes’ voice, he fumbles the lantern he’s carrying and is rendered immobile: he “knew not whether to advance or fly” (Dickens, 183).
9. Baumgarten, referencing Bakhtin, suggests Dickens creates “a modern city chronotope with pre-historic dimensions and historical memories,” writing that “has much in common with...the dream-work of films” (225).
10. The infrastructure supporting social reproduction in the 19th century comprised the then-faltering institutions of the “moral economy,” which upheld the principles of “just price” and outdoor relief—principles undermined by the Poor Laws Dickens criticizes (see Thompson).
11. Katz provocatively flags the need to produce “topographies and countertopographies” of these spaces, “thick descriptions of particular places” that highlight the inner connections between “vastly different places made artifactually discrete by virtue of history and geography but which also reproduce themselves differently amidst the common political-economic and sociocultural processes they experience” (721). The “global child” films, considered collectively, can be seen as contributing to just such a project.
12. See especially, Jones’ chapter in Holloway and Valentine, as well as Beazley, Katz, and Curti and Moreno.
13. See Seabrook’s article in Capital and Class for a searing critique of consumer agency, as well as a critical discussion of the internal relatedness of the child consumer and child laborer.
14. In her book Coining for Capital, Jyotsna Kapur analyzes how the social anxieties provoked by the autonomous, “grown up” child are played out in Toy Story (1995). She elaborates this thesis in a later essay, discussing the missing child in such thrillers as Syriana (2005) and The Good Shepherd (2006).
15. At this point, the characters shift from childhood to adulthood. But for Jamal, the shift is merely physical: he remains the slightly naïve, morally sound person of his childhood self. This, combined with the film’s flashback structure of scene editing, blurs the distinction between his adult and child selves.
16. Salim’s portrayal of childhood is itself complex: on the one hand, his morally suspect ways place him within the 1970s tradition of “bad seed” children (Jackson). On the other, Salim uses his street-smarts for good, saving Jamal from having his eyes burned out, and—as an adult—setting Jamal and Latika free by ultimately killing both crime bosses (while sacrificing his life for their happiness).
17. Another commercially successful film featuring a child negotiating the post-hurricane US Delta largely without parental protection is Beasts of the Southern Wild (U.S., 2012). However the two films differ in their portrayals of childhood. While Beasts’ protagonist, five-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) is, as bell hooks’ withering critique suggests, tough, she shares little of Jamal’s strong agency (see also note 23). Director Benh Zeitlin focuses less on whether or not Hushpuppy conquers her circumstances, than on how she negotiates her life, playing up the imaginative and sensual aspects of her existence in the world. In so doing, he transcends the agent/victim binary, and registers a more Benjaminian sensibility (elaborated below) to childhood.
18. This tradition has been traced by both Karen Lury and Emma Wilson. See Lury’s perceptive readings of Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), Spirit of the Beehive (1973), and Ivan’s Childhood (1962) among others in her book The Child in Film: Tears, Fears and Fairy Tales; Emma Wilson offers another insightful discussion of the filmic child’s embodied subjectivity in the films Lilya 4-ever (2003) and Martha . . . Martha (2001). See her essay “Children, Emotion and Viewing in Contemporary European Film.”
19. Films such as Little Cheung or Beasts of the Southern Wild, featuring children who are firmly embedded in familial relations and help to sustain themselves and their struggling families by contributing their (formal and or informal) labor can and at points do partake of a the same Benjaminian sensibility. That is, while the Dickensian mode of critique depends upon the child’s status as an orphan, the Benjaminian mode does not.
20. This is one of the achievements of Katz's Growing Up Global, showing how children in societies as distinct as Howa, Sudan and Harlem, New York negotiate and respond to the same over-arching set of global capitalist relations.
21. See Benjamin’s essays The Lamp and On the Mimetic Faculty on mimesis and childhood.
22. I've collapsed two grasshopper hunting scenes in this passage to avoid needless repetition of details concerning plot development. [return to page 3]
23. It’s worth emphasizing how remarkably unadultlike their entrepreneurship is: it is not about entering into an exchange-based economy, but about producing a single, non-reproducible, use value—their mother's return. A similar negotiation with the reality principle can be seen in Beasts of the Southern Wild, when Hushpuppy dresses up a chair in her absent mother’s clothing and imagines (creates?) the comfort of her presence.
24. Thomson and Philo suggest that what adults often conventionally designate as “play” may well be children “just existing, just being” (111). And certainly, the play/work continuum that characterizes children's subjective interaction with the world is widely discussed (ex. Katz, 59-108). It is also evident to varying degrees in other films referenced here. In Little Cheung, for instance, the children’s work delivering tea slips constantly into play, specifically into playing a joke on a gangster who buys and enjoys the “pee” tea—a brilliant enactment of a fantasy that temporarily upends the given power relation between thug and child.
25. bell hooks’ critique of Beasts of the Southern Wild revolves precisely around this point. She argues that Hushpuppy, is “a miniature version of the ‘strong black female matriarch,’” embodying (or sometimes learning) the toughness and independence needed in a Survivor-esque world—a portrayal that hooks believes helps to establish the film’s ultimately conservative message “that the strong will necessarily rule over the weak.” While this provocative thesis requires a more developed response than possible here, I would counter that neither Hushpuppy or the film’s resolution are so unambiguous—a point hook inadvertently acknowledges in her comments about Hushpuppy’s uncertain future: Hushpuppy, she suggests, seems likely to end up as a wild woman, “wandering in a wildness of spirit so profound that she is forever lost”—a racist stereotype to be sure, but not evidence of the strong overcoming the weak. hooks is, I believe, better attuned to the essence of the story and character when she notes (but does not fully explore) that Hushpuppy’s “strength lies in cultivating the imaginary and living life as fantasy.”
26. Of course, the filmmakers “objectify” the child by the mere act of filming and then again in the screening. What I’m trying to get at here is the aspect of the child that their artistic objectification captures.
27. In fact in most Western contexts the featured children are doubly “otherized,” first as innocent victims, second as “foreign.”
28. To be clear, such sensual affiliation is sexual in nature, stirring a desire within the viewer for the child. But I believe Lury (and many of the “global child” filmmakers) are striving to articulate something more complex than the scopophilic desire that Mulvey describes. To begin, they stress a polymorphous sensuality (in the films this is established by shots of children’s generalized sensual engagement with the world, while Lury suggests the same in her discussion of the role played by mud, rain and fire in war-time films about children). Moreover, as I’ve been arguing, because the child is portrayed as a complex subject/object in films like Treeless Mountain, the audience is invited to sensually identify with her, rather than simply objectify her.
29. See also Lebowitz.
30. I’d like to thank David McNally, James Cairns, Jyotsna Kapur and the Jump Cut’s editors and anonymous reviewers for their careful reading of earlier versions of this article, and their insightful commentary and suggestions. I’d also like to thank Sam Ferguson for his help retrieving stills of the films for publication in this journal.
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