Read an Excerpt
Excerpt from The American Child: A Cultural Studies Reader edited by Caroline F. Levander and Carol J. Singley
Copyright information: http://rutgerspress.rutgers.edu/press_copyright_and_disclaimer/default.html
Since Philippe Ariès's landmark study Centuries of Childhood was published in 1962, there has been increased critical interest in the child as a rich and varied site of cultural inscription. Scholars from a wide range of disciplines have turned their attention to the child in order to interrogate how it comes to represent, and often codify, the prevailing ideologies of a given culture or historical period. From a number of disciplinary perspectives, such work has asked, in short, What do ideas about children-as represented in the narratives, rituals, legislation, or common practices a society develops around the child-tell us about that culture? Answers to this question have revealed the numerous and unique ways that the child represents and then helps to disseminate the ideals governing various cultures. Some scholars-such as Lauren Berlant, Roger Cox, Lee Edelman, James Kincaid, Michael Moon, Jacqueline Rose, Carolyn Steedman, and Michael Warner, for example-have studied the child as a means of thinking in new ways about the adult self and the social, civic, and erotic elements that comprise it. Others-Gillian Avery, Karin Calvert, Hugh Cunningham, and Jacqueline Reiner, to name only a few-have been concerned with documenting the impact that the child's ideological work has on real children and have therefore assessed the material cultures surrounding children of diverse classes, races, and ethnicities in order to learn more about how theyexperience their lives. Yet despite their different emphases, all of these studies are a response to the idea, originally propounded by Ariès, that the child is not only born but made-not only a biological fact but a cultural construct that encodes the complex, ever-shifting logic of a given group and therefore reveals much about its inner workings. Approaching the child as a complex conceptual field, these studies have charted the diverse ways the child absorbs and helps to disseminate the divergent, sometimes contradictory ideologies that typify particular historical periods.
This collection of essays extends these ongoing inquiries into the cultural meanings of childhood, but from the distinct perspective of U.S. history, literature, and cultural studies. Such a book is particularly timely at this juncture in child studies because the American nation, since its inception, has been identified with and imagined as a child, yet the full significance of this alliance and its relevance to critical inquiries into the figure of the child have yet to be fully understood. Narratives of U.S. national identity are persistently configured in the language of family: national identity is implicated in shifting notions of childhood, from the first colonial separation from a punitive and authoritarian parent country and formal Declaration of Independence to the repeated figuring, in nineteenth-through late-twentieth-century American culture, of the child as a nostalgic symbol of lost innocence and youth. Whether it be Thomas Paine, who argued that "the infant state of the colonies" justifies their "separation from the corrupt parent" country of Great Britain, or Ralph Waldo Emerson, who contended in Nature that the child inevitably reminds Americans of their own lost "spirit of infancy," the child operates as a rich metaphor for U.S. writers and thinkers engaged in considering evolving notions of U.S. national identity. Furthermore, because the nation has variously attempted both to emulate the lines of blood and inheritance that define western European nations and to embrace the concept of independence that celebrates severance of the genealogical tree from its roots, the child operates as a particularly dense and contradictory site of meaning in a U.S. context. Thus, the broken genealogy that constitutes the nation and becomes a cornerstone of the American story makes U.S. cultural studies especially productive context in which to extend critical inquiry into the wealth of current analysis of the child.
U.S. literature is not, of course, unique in its representation of the child as the inspiration or embodiment of an authentic self that derives from nature as well as culture. Such romantic sensibilities abound in Western romantic literature. But the United States is distinctive in the ways that it has seized upon the image of the child in opposition to that which is constructed or institutionalized, and in the extent to which it has promoted the child as a force of resistance as well as innocent vulnerability. Such claims of potentiality and independence-and with them ongoing assertions of the right to self- invention; the entitlement to youthful, even reckless, adventure; and the pursuit of infinite possibility-align the nation with what is often taken for granted as the essence of childhood. Seen another way, the child signifies both a space and border between youth and maturity, between new world and old, wilderness and civilization, innocence and experience. This imagined opposition between child and adult has proved fertile ground for writers, from Anne Bradstreet to Don DeLillo, who figure their writing in terms of the child and also enlist the child to convey particular cultural preoccupations. The child is a compelling interpretive site precisely because it is so open and so vulnerable to competing, even opposing, claims. And in a U.S. context, the child functions as an empty or loaded cipher, a conscious or unconscious presence, or a provocative or inert force, with greater intensity and duration than it has in other cultural contexts.
Feminist, postcolonialist, and other postmodern scholarship has complicated optimistic, simplistic views of the child as emblematic of either nature's regenerative power or its opposite, the deviant or abnormal. Such scholarship has similarly expanded the notion of a defenseless child in need of adult protection in favor of a more complex, mutually reinforcing dynamic in which the child elicits adult responsiveness and in turn grants the adult legitimacy, protection, or even cover; and it has challenged the assumption of the generic child. Through the lens of race, class, and kinship, the pure or innocent child may be seen as a white, middle-class fantasy, a construction, as both Ariès and Ian Hacking note, that originated during the Enlightenment and has been employed to erase those events that disenfranchise certain children and their families. Just as the generic child is construed as "other" in relation to the adult, so too do poor, disabled, or orphaned children or children of color occupy marginalized positions in relation to more idealized versions of childhood. These contemporary critical lenses have-in useful ways-helped to complicate the simple equation of the child with innocence and nation. Yet because the child offers a new praxis along which to consider questions of difference, the full extent and versatility of its role in relations between self and other are only beginning to be understood. Sexuality studies and queer theory have begun to theorize the child's significance, but we have yet to investigate fully how the child helps to perpetuate and disrupt the complex social formations that produce particular racial, ethnic, class, sexual, gender, and national identities.
This collection represents current, ongoing work in these developing areas of inquiry and asks us to think in innovative ways about how the child engages in a wide range of social formations. The essays investigate childhood from diverse methodological perspectives and approaches. The volume is grounded in the literary but draws heavily on various other disciplines, making clear that literary representations of children and childhood are not isolated aesthetic artifacts but cultural productions that in turn affect the social climates around them. The essays explore configurations of childhood across centuries, regions, and literary and historical movements. They consider literature written about and sometimes for the child. In the former case, the child functions as the vehicle through which adult identity, behavior, and attitudes are constructed, manipulated, and reinforced. In the latter case, the child is a recipient of adult values and expectations; but even this literature, as Anne Scott MacLeod notes, says more about what adults want children to think, feel, or do than about what children themselves actually desire or understand.
In sum, the essays herein view the child as an integral piece in the puzzle of identity that includes self, family, region, nation, and language. The opening essay, "Child's Play," by Gillian Brown, exemplifies the collection's overarching concerns with material culture, representation, and cultural critique. Beginning with an analysis of the media images of children playing with guns that surrounded the Columbine High School and other American school shootings, Brown delineates how the representational materials of play within children's lives have activated concerns about the effects of culture on citizens. From the end of the eighteenth century to the present, child's play, as Brown shows, has offered a tableau of how Americans become absorbed in different objects and interests. Thus the space of children's play is one of the sacred spaces of modern American life precisely because children's absorption in the charged matter of playthings, on the one hand, reenacts past concerns about the unprecedented production and consumption of objects that typify American life and, on the other hand, acts as a rehearsal for how modern mass consumption will affect that life in the future.