Whether you look at superhero-besotted Hollywood, the clothes alleged grownups wear in public, or the spread of video games out of the suburban family room, it’s hard to miss noticing that much of contemporary culture is caught in childhood.
Susan Neiman, an American philosopher who lives in Berlin and directs the Einstein Forum, tries to figure out the causes and effects of all this in her new book, “Why Grow Up?: Subversive Thoughts for an Infantile Age.” A.O. Scott of the New York Times wrote that “the real virtue of this short, sometimes frustrating book lies in its insistence that thinking for oneself is a difficult and lifelong undertaking.”
We corresponded by email with Neiman, who favors British spelling, from her home in Berlin.
When was it that you realized that our society was caught in an adolescent or childlike stage? Did you have a gradual, slow-developing sense something was wrong, or did it hit you all at once?
It dawned on me slowly, but two experiences were probably pivotal. The first was being told, starting at around the age of 50, that I looked younger than my age. I knew that this was meant in a compliment; but as I finally said to a close friend, the sociologist Eva Illouz: don’t you realise that these kinds of compliments do us damage? If you want to tell me I look good I’m happy to hear it; but by equating looking good and looking young you are not only fetishizing youth, you are also implying we can only look good when we appear to be what we are not, namely young.
The second experience was watching my children enter their 20s, allegedly the best time of one’s life; observing and trying to support them in their struggles has brought back the memory of my own 20s more intensely, and how terribly hard those times are; and how much harder we make them by telling them to savour the best years of their lives. Of course at the time I thought I was the only one failing to savour those years, which made the experience worse.