Most people find babies cute, and for good evolutionary reasons. A newborn human is more completely dependent on the care of its parents than any other mammal (there probably is an exception to this rule, but for the purpose of this article, we go with the clich’e).
I just want to share an experience with you. When I looked at our baby, I saw just a baby, with a striking similarities to the other babies in the nursery. Of course she looked “cute”, because that is what I’m supposed to think in our culture, it’s an esthetic judgement I learned to make when I was a baby myself.
But did her cuteness attach me, her father, irresistibly? No. But when she was sleeping in between her parents, her head on a little pillow – that is when she became cute in a different sense. Not by comparison to the other babies, but by comparison to us. Precisely because her behavior as a sleeping baby is identical to the behavior of an adult. She breaths not as a sleeping baby, but as a sleeping person, she yawns, stretches, and goes through the entire repertoire of nocturnal movements, just like we do. To paraphrase a famous song:
She yawns just like a woman, she blinks just like a woman, she breaths just like a woman, she turns her head just like a woman – but her size is that of an infant girl.
It is interesting why the disappearance of the difference between the baby and the adult, and not the baby-as-such (in comparison to the other babies or the baby in the book) is what constitutes its cuteness, and triggers most adequately reactions af attachment and parental bonding.
Of course this sentiment is later perverted when we dress the baby in miniature clothes, and demand completely superfluous baby versions of everything. But what is interesting about the experience is what it teaches us about our perception of babies. The pure miniature adult, without the particularities pertaining only to babies, as a pure person full of potentiality, a blank slate on which we are carefully writing her first impressions.
So we have two modes of cuteness:
1) Social cuteness. Cuteness of a baby among other babies, caused by the cultural norm that babies are supposed to be cute.
2) Existential cuteness. Cuteness of a baby as a miniature version of ourselves, caused by our fascination with the pure person, who has yet to be inscribed into the social order of our world.
The lesson of this little hermeneutics of cuteness: That there is no “cuteness-as-such”, independent of our cultural aesthetic norms and unrelated to our reflective selves. That shouldn’t hurt, as long as we are aware of it. And perhaps there comes a day that the baby finds us cute, for the inverse reasons. Then it might be time to dance.