Rebekah Sheldon

(Indiana University)

Pleading, Hurt, and Incredibly Cute: The Child, Environmental Crisis, and Regimes of Faciality


In an interview for Cabinet Magazine, Sianne Ngai defines the cute as “a way of aestheticizing powerlessness.” For this reason, the child as the prototypically cute object is most fully itself when weak, hurt, and in need of protection. As one of the minor affects central to late capital, the sentimental economy of swooning to the cute circuits the pastoral performance of care through consumption and renders empathy a dimension of acquisition. The power differential enacted by the cute is thus a mode of encountering distress without triggering the disgust aroused by the possibility of contamination. Through the child, cuteness domesticizes dependence and figures it as the safely contained past of the fully agential adult present. In this sense, the cute child is a form of temporalization that embeds the painfully adorable as the exteriorized past of the disinterested adult present. Finally, in the facial regime it shares with the cute animal—big eyes, small mouth and nose, round face–the child sets into motion a metonymic chain linking developmental stages of individual lives to the nonhuman past of the Earth.

And yet as everyone from Whitney Houston to Lee Edelman tells us, the child is not the past but the future. It is not surprising, then, that the cute child attaches to speculations of futurity and particularly to fictional and nonfictional depictions of climate change. As we have seen, however, the set of affects and narratives conditioned by the facial regime of the cute child distances human from nonhuman lives by containing potentially contaminating weakness. In this presentation—as in the larger project that feeds it—I ask: What is the animal weakness whose threatening futurity must be reconsolidated as the safely consumable human past? This presentation collects and composes images of the cute child in contemporary narratives of environmental crisis with citations from speculative and geo-philosophy, theories of queer children, affective readings of the face, and intentional and unintended biotechnical experimentation.