Sprouting banality

There’s a great ad running on PBS for the preschool cable channel Sprout, PBS’s private, for-profit venture with Comcast. In it, an international governing body, obviously the UN, debates some burning issue. Representatives of several nations are bickering in the way that nations do. As the seemingly interminable argument plods on, an innocent, doe-eyed young man of about eight who is sitting in the gallery clears his throat and pronounces, with great preciousness and common sense: “Excuse me. The more we get together, the happier we will be.” The members of the body all nod and moan their approval. Cut to a pleased parent watching the proceedings on television with her enraptured preschool-aged child.

It’s total horseshit, of course, even aside from the maudlin “message.” Anyone who knows preschoolers knows they are wonderfully free of anything resembling common sense. Ask one of them a simple question and you’ll usually receive a convoluted, nonsensical answer. The boy’s axiom about happiness would prompt most of them (or at least my five-year-old) to cry, “That’s boring!” and turn off the tv.

But the ad is delicious nonetheless. For starters, it transmits two messages to PBS’s benefactors. First, it makes clear that PBS is the boy in the commercial. Answering the recent round of conservative attacks on the network’s funding and “objectivity,” PBS is saying, Look, we are not political, though our innocence can solve political disputes. We have no agenda; we only utter the simple, apolitical truisms of childhood. Now let’s get together so that the children will be happier.

The other message addresses the subtext of the criticisms of PBS. Even though conservatives outwardly denounce the network for its bias (the news and documentary shows) and moral depravity (the Buster-cavorting-with-lesbians flap), what really galls them is that PBS is not a money-making operation. Even uber-Christer Tony Perkins, of the Family Research Council, admits he is bothered more by PBS’s nonprivate business model than by its embrace of deviant sexual activity. The ad winks at the network’s critics, letting them know that its programming and philosophy are fully compatible with market demands. PBS is getting together with big media companies so that capitalists will be happier.

(Clarification: I don’t mean to imply that by participating in a for-profit venture PBS has just now passed over to the Dark Side. Indeed, Sprout merely reruns PBS Kids shows. Despite conservative hysterics, PBS is, to put it in the arch phrasing US journalists reserve for places like China and Syria, state-run television. It’s probably more flexible than most state media, but that doesn’t make it any less a part of the ideological state apparatus.)

There’s another way to read the commercial, a way that speaks to one of the things I want explore in this space (but that I’ll just scratch at now), namely, the relationship between society, parents, and children, or, to put it in Deleuze and Guattari’s terms, between social production, the family, and desiring-production. Briefly stated (and skipping all the interesting elaborations), in D&G’s schema the family acts as the agent of social repression, recording society’s norms and laws on its members’ desire and thus instituting the psychic repression that society is unable to accomplish by itself.

In the ad for Sprout, we see a crystallized version of the recording process. The young boy’s statement acts as a proxy both for the socius and for the family, which is evidenced in the UN representatives’ and the parent’s satisfied reactions. In this instance, social production demands that its subjects be politically involved, but only insofar as they offer bromides about peace and cooperation and happiness that, by not addressing the content of the debate or interrogating the nature of the forum, legitimize the ruling structures and their prerogatives. By reinforcing for her child that vague platitudes come “naturally” to children, the parent has played well her delegated role of frustrating the child’s desire for complexity and comprehension.

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4 thoughts on “Sprouting banality

  1. What do you think of the basic premise of Barney’s message (and PBS’s support thereof), that happiness depends on togetherness, i.e. conformity?

  2. hi Eric,
    Presumably the family is not only what D&G describe, right? I mean, is it possible that one subjectivizes ones’ kids and at the same time hopes to do so with a bit of a wink?
    Your remark on PBS’s supposed apoliticalness of kids (and yet, as you note in the commercial, also the bearer of a form of liberal utopia) reminded me of stories my wife tells me. She works in a Head Start (for minimum wage! nonprofit my ass!) with a number of kids who like to tell stories about cops and so forth, sometimes in the form of anthropomorphized nonhuman police (like the police pumpkin who came and arrested the jack-o-lantern around halloween, because “the jack-o-lantern got that guy”). Maybe the toddler nonsense refracts certain social realities. I’m trying to talk her into writing a book collecting these stories.
    take care,
    Nate

  3. Nate,

    Yes, the family does have its own reality, its own “issues” and inheritances, that it passes on, which can be distinct, though not completely separated, from social reality. And yeah, we do have our own ways of helping to form kids. One thing that I like about contemporary parenting is that there seems to be more of an awareness of how we form children, and an awareness of the inherently authoritarian structure of the family, than there used to be. And always with a wink. In the future I’m going to have some posts about this.

    The story of the police pumpkin is hilarious (and sad). Certainly children reformulate social realities, probably both to put them in their own vocabulary and to diminish their horror. But sometimes their nonsense is just, well, nonsense, which I think could be read as an assertion of their own autonomy, their rejection of social and familial imperatives.

    Thinking about familial dynamics is new to me, since I’ve spent the last five years just trying to keep up with them and meet their needs. But D&G have made me very curious, and made me rethink some of my ideas about parenting.

    Thanks for writing,

    Eric

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