Deconstructing "The Child"Roundup
tags: gender, psychology, patriarchy, transgender, childhood, Critical Theory, Psychoanalysis
Jules Gill-Peterson is an associate professor of History at Johns Hopkins University. She is the author of Histories of the Transgender Child (2018) and a general co-editor of TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly.
At a particular moment in the late nineteenth century, Anglo-American culture began to sever the notion of children as an age-bound group from the romanticized figure of “the child.” That severance took a serious degree of violence to pull off. Paeans of innocence and sentimentality had naturalized dependency and property relations, and Victorians called this violent form of attachment love, whose site was the bourgeois family. This sanctification of modern, precious childhood was achieved in metropoles like London and New York City by unleashing some of the largest projects of death and alienation the world had ever seen. Poor children were worked to death in the factories. Black and Indigenous children in settler colonies were barred from the protectable status of the child through incarceration and planned genocide—a tradition that continues to this day. Little reaches more nauseating contradiction in the colonial and capitalist present than the putative care for children. The very notion of care naturalizes the material and psychic dehumanization of children as fundamentally inferior people undeserving of respect. Perhaps unbelievably, the many harms done to children in the name of care are conventionally rationalized as part of loving them. This historical domestication of children is a record of primitive accumulation: the sexualizing and racializing practices that have robbed them of their bodies, minds, and souls, covered over by the idolatry of that squeaky-clean thing we call the child.
Childhood may be one of the only socially degraded statuses that, in theory, every person passes through. No wonder, then, that psychoanalysis should have discovered the apparent amnesia about it in adults. Somehow, once it becomes memory, we ironically cannot remember what it really felt like to be children in the present tense. (To which we might respond, of course, who would want to remember that?) But in truth, we know that many groups of people are structurally deprived of anything like a childhood in the first place, or they experience infantilization throughout their lives. These are two of the many denials effected by the ideology of the child. Childhood is only shared retrospectively by those adults who made it out. Some of us face population-level killing projects directed intentionally at Black children, Indigenous children, disabled children, migrant children, trans children, and poor children because we are most vulnerable in childhood. From this position, we might reframe the psychoanalytic etching of trauma’s deferred structure as the practical matter of having survived childhoods that were not childhoods at all. Call us un-children. It’s an ugly phrase, and I don’t know if the mark wears with age.
I have come out swinging on purpose, not out of a surplus of certainty or a defensive insecurity. The sentimental ideology around children has left critics of the concept of the child with the difficult task of convincing readers they should question deeply rooted inequities that have shaped them inside-out from birth, if not long prior. Perhaps I was primed to become a scholar of childhood because my own was so convincingly inadequate to its stated function of nurturing my growth into something desirable. Like many of the un-children I have invoked, I never much felt myself to coincide with the category. Precocity was first and foremost a response to the threats forming my environment even before I had language for them. Repeated flashes hardened my nervous system through the originary insult of being called a faggot, or a white teacher not letting my turbaned grandfather pick me up after school because she didn’t believe we could be related. With time, by sacrificing something I could not yet consciously entertain, I was able to jury-rig precocious exposure into an inverse escape velocity. In a comparably safer adulthood, I could finally say out loud the things I wanted, like womanhood. And in writing a book about the remarkable transgender kids whose childhoods many decades before mine were nothing like mine, I became convinced that the main feature of the child is to wish away the inconvenience that almost no children qualify for its embrace. Its arithmetic is the stuff of the 1 percent.
The contemporary crises of the present lay bare that inadequacy in painfully dramatic fashion. In the United States alone, we know Black children can be killed with impunity by the police. We know trans children can be forcibly detransitioned and encouraged to kill themselves; we know migrant children can be ripped from their parents’ arms and locked up; and we know grade school children can be gunned down with assault rifles. That horrific knowledge, however, does not guarantee anything will improve for those children. In fact, it seems more like each of these kinds of children must be harmed to sustain something deemed more important, like mass incarceration, the moral purity of the Christian state, the sovereign integrity of the border, or the right of white people to stockpile weapons. Buckling under the spectacular cruelty of these rationalizations, stymied by world-historical levels of income inequality and a planetary climate crisis, and fearful of the fallacy that anyone could possibly parent their way out of such a situation, the generation coming of age today is often described as trying not to have children. Meanwhile, another cohort, increasingly with the backing of the state, legally compels gestation and birthing. No one may withdraw their desire from reproduction to the inverse extent that un-children must be culled.