What about Psychoanalysis as a Theory of the Child?

I admittedly reserve my staunchest theoretical ambivalence for psychoanalysis and depth psychology.  Though it is simple enough to note that the psychoanalytic moment in critical theory and the humanities is largely over, as a scholar interested in children and childhood I have found it quite impossible to ignore what has been perhaps the dominant theory of the child in the twentieth century.  What psychoanalysis offers is a compellingly accurate theory of norms and deviations of development from infancy to latency, to puberty and, in an eerie phrase one comes across far too often in its canon, if all goes well, adulthood.  Though linear and entirely organized around the temporally conservative logic of the repetition of the same, psychoanalytic theory at its most provocative so fractures itself by allowing for movement across stages that the coherency of any child’s development into adulthood seems a rare and frankly bizarre outcome.

Freud’s Three Essays present the canonical account of developmentalism from the polymorphous and perverse infant to the normally adjusted, heterosexual adult, who dares not even linger too long on kissing before procreative sex.  Those major figures in psychoanalytic theory who spent considerable time developing child analysis, however, tend to provide a more complicated and therefore interesting account.  Melanie Klein, for instance, despite her mostly unbearable Oedipalism, sketches an alluring account of sadistic and guilty infants and children driven by virulent envy and hate for their parents into murderous fantasies that then result in the severe ambient anxiety if childhood.  Indeed, Klein’s aggression/pleasure and anxiety/guilt model of infantile and childhood object-relations affords a real emotional and proto-cognitive autonomy to the lives of children, one she respects at least up to the point of then reducing all conflicts to Oedipus.

D.W. Winnicott’s work on transitional objects and creative play, despite its pretensions to universality as theory, also offers a generative conceptual framework and vocabulary for contemplating the necessary living-with the paradox of the subject-object split of Western metaphysics.  The “potential space” between infant and mother that anchors the healthy development of the former to transitional objects and play suggests, much like Daniel Stern’s work in The Interpersonal World of the Infant, that the pretensions of the Western subject to possessive individualism are hardly intuitive or natural.  Hence Klein, Winnicott, and Stern’s potential sympathy to an Irigarayan reading practice that would take psychoanalysis not as a universal theory, but rather more modestly and critically as providing an accurate account of the transmission of phallocentrism from generation to generation through the rearing of children, an account that must be reckoned with as the ground from which anything different can be contemplated.

Whether or not psychoanalysis is useful to thinking the child differently, though, is still a complicated question.  It is distressingly difficult, when pouring through book after book of Klein or Winnicott, for example, to ignore the ugly repetition of a compulsive Mommy-Daddy-Me logic that snuffs out any other machinic connection being undertaken by psychoanalysis’ children.  In that sense, both Irigaray and Deleuze and Guattari’s careful critical treatment of psychoanalysis are indispensable to a specific consideration of the figure of the child.

Yet in a fidelity to both of those projects it seems premature (pun duly intended) to abandon a “bad” theory of the child that has exerted such a powerful influence over the past century.  Indeed, to abandon that conceptual genealogy would seem to be, in true psychoanalytic fashion, the surest way to ensure its eternal repressed return.  There remains, moreover, a question of corporeal difference to be accounted for that psychoanalysis at least incorporates well into its theory: as Lacan so magically puts it, “that danger of the generic prematurity of birth” among humans exceeds all the Oedpialism, phallocentrism, and familialism for which psychoanalysis can be indicted.  Humans are born before being what we know as adults, before being capable of autonomy.  In so far as that corporeal difference is articulated as a temporary lack of capacity, some concept of change or growth cannot be abandoned.  To unhinge the infant and child from the teleology of growing up, from the adoption of a phallocentric subjectivity, or from an Oedipal familialism, will all require an innovative working through difference that maintains the actuality of the alterity of age.  If the normative cut of difference between child and adult were to be dismantled, though, a ground would be cleared for an inventive potential set of becomings for the human body at any age.  Perhaps it would finally become possible to think other than through the ontologically conservative model of life-span according to which the experiences of the infant and small child haunt the adult neurotic, narrowing its potential becoming and condemning all children to the rigid dictates of growing up into yet another “normal” person.

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One comment

  1. What psychoanalysis has to offer the child (and the child in the adult) isn’t in the books. It’s in the listening, in the room. Do you have any pictures of Melanie Klein? The one on the back cover of “Envy and Gratitude” is telling. She looks through a depressed lens. Freud was the oldest son of a young beautiful mother. Hence, the oedipus complex. Read Salman Ahktar, Meltzer from the British School Object Relations. These are better voices. Not so defended and paranoid and compliant.

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