The exhibition Blow Up curated by Felix Burrichter and designed by Charlap Hyman & Herrero and currently on view at Friedman Benda gallery New York, is an exploration on design, scale, and the conditioning of childhood. As part of the exhibition program, we asked five writers to write a special diary entry around the theme of childhood, design, and their ideas of domesticity.
Nicolas Jacques Pelletier’s head was lopped off in what was then called the Place de Grève on the 25th of April, 1792. It was the first execution by guillotine. At that point, the end of the 18th century, the guillotine was not new, or not entirely. The name was new — given for the physician and death-penalty abolitionist Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, who proposed its use three years earlier (though he did not build the initial prototype, that was Antoine Louis, proof that marketing is often more important than creation), but similar beheading devices had been in use around Europe since at least the 13th century.
What was truly new was efficiency, scale. At the height of the Reign of Terror, as baskets overfilled with skulls and they ran short on pikes to prop them up on, the guillotine assumed its outsized role in the morbid fears and fantasies of the public mind which no deadly device could compete with until, perhaps, the atom bomb. Violence is cultural and much like children today have plastic tanks and troops, they had then toy guillotines. A patriotic gesture, I suppose: le rasoir national. One wonders when Predator drones, built-to-scale, will be holiday must-haves.
Some of the toy guillotines were as tall as two feet. Children would reportedly behead their dolls, and even rodents. In his 1853 essay, “The Philosophy of Toys,” Charles Baudelaire recalls witnessing an upper-class child who had dropped his doll, “as neat and clean as its master,” beside him to gawk through the grate as a poor child, an “urchin,” shook a live rat in a cage. “His parents, to save money, had drawn a toy from life itself.” There were French towns that banned the toy blades, fearing for what the children may grow up to be. I wasn’t yet six when Columbine happened and for years after I remember having to argue with my mom to play increasingly violent video games, the cable news-driven fear of their blood and guts growing more manic during the Bush years even as wars metastasized and guns got easier to get. On TV some people propose students wear bulletproof backpacks. Fleur Jaeggy, introducing John Keats by way of the sinister toy: “Do childhood games typically leave cadavers behind in the nursery?” It seems yes, often the child’s own as they walk out the door. Keats: “Who are these coming to the sacrifice?” One can imagine a child cutting off his finger and another sucking the blood.
Growing up, I knew a girl who would dismember her Barbies and put each limb, torso, head, in its own corresponding drawer. Fragmented and fetishized, object and abject speak slant. The desire to see the “soul” of the toy is “a first metaphysical tendency,” explains Baudelaire, musing on the child’s impulse towards destruction. “But where is the soul?” A shattered doll reveals only a hollow. “This is the beginning of melancholy and gloom.” What might fill the unfillable? An instruction towards violence, or: the violence of instruction? “I don’t find it in me to blame this infantile mania.”
Why did I beg my mother to buy me one of those dolls that pissed itself, seen on the commercials that came between cartoons? (I never received one.) Better, why did they make them? Should I recall the commercials when I’m in a stranger’s shower, urine bitter in my eyes and mouth, incanting the 1-800 number on the head of his cock? Call now for this special TV offer.
“Is not the whole of life to be found there in miniature?” asks Baudelaire of the toy store. To play is recitation, repetition to become rote, rigid in the bounds of one’s person, boundaries so uncertain as to be undone by the singular swipe of a blade. There are guts but then a hollow too. “Always childish enough, an eternal child!”, Nietzsche exclaims in Beyond Good and Evil. Can one be both so open to the world as the child and moral? Nietzsche’s fevered attempt to protect the horse from its master marked the beginning of his end. The child is wild and eleven years mad. We’ve all seen something so cute we want to squeeze it till it bursts and then tear to pieces its ebullient corpse.
The guillotine was only retired in France some four decades ago. Tens of thousands of citizens were killed, and only God knows the count of dolls and rodents.