Growing Up Trans, in the 1960s

It’s a vertiginous moment to be writing a book about the transgender child. When I started my research about five years ago it was a relatively simple task to place the work within the available cultural and medical texts that dealt directly with self-identified transgender children. There were a few, in short, but I could hold them all in my head at once.

What a difference a few years makes. As I work on a manuscript, it’s become an immense relief that I’m not focusing on our historical present for the simple reason that the proliferation of discourse and cultural material on transgender children would make it almost impossible to stay up to date. Yet it also, I would argue, makes the consideration of generational narratives and the critical assessment of awed futurism even more important than ever.

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When PBS released its Frontline documentary Growing Up Trans two months ago, it added such a text to the growing constellation of voices of transgender children. The documentary is not especially revealing, despite its emotional genre of conflict, confusion, and confession. The children it follows are all well trained in speaking to doctors and adults in the discursive idiom of transgender medicine; the parents present themselves as good-hearted liberals, ready to learn how to best love their children (even if they “need time” to understand their hostility to their child); and while there is some passing reference to the cost of puberty blockers and cross-sex hormone therapy, the trans child-friendly medical establishment is simply there, waiting to take the reigns. The feigned fear over whether or not adults are making the “right” decision in allowing children to transition comes off somewhat rehearsed as a result, at least in my viewing of the documentary: the history of endocrinology is filled with far more “experimental” treatments and the sheer plasticity it has cultivated in children’s bodies since the late nineteenth century means in reality that the question of “reversibility” or “changes” that “can’t be taken back” after they are made is not very well reflected in actual medical technique. The endocrine system is incredibly impressible, particularly in children; in fact, the medical field counts on it.

There’s so much more that could be said about the documentary, and I don’t mean to reduce it to any one narrative point (for instance, there’s the implication of a politically conservative desire for a “post-transgender” generation laminated over one eighteen year old’s desire to be done with the transphobia opened up by identifying as trans after completing SRS; elsewhere, there’s the college student awkwardly presented towards the end of the doc as a potential apologist with ostensible regret over aspects of his transition, where we might reply that he was actually articulating a rather brilliant critique of the binary fanaticism attached to children’s transition, so that the demand for the perfect achievement of masculinity or femininity can produce a culture-wide version  of what Avgi Saketopoulou has rightfully called “massive gender trauma“).

Still, what struck me most in Growing Up Trans was its relentless investment in a generational narrative that makes today’s transgender children fare without any history whatsoever. At one point a parent of a child featured in the film wishes we could fast forward 100 years in order to know the “true” effects of transitioning during childhood, assuming that longitudinal studies are all that stand in the way of clear knowledge (in any case, there already are longitudinal studies and they bring good news for transition in childhood). What’s actually the most heartbreaking about the documentary has nothing to do with the specific people it features: it’s the incessant return to transgender as an exceptional category that will never achieve “true” masculinity or femininity, demanding that these children and their parents incorporate failure and loss into their gender identities, while pretending that cisgender identities are not also based on guilt and loss for being inherently impossible. The collective delusion that there really are biologically exclusive men and women hurts each time it is repeated by adults and children, because the conclusion is that the transgender child will never be one of them. The painstaking conversations had over and over about what a “big decision” transgender children have to make works to obscure that the actual “big decision” is a collective one: the unspeakable decision to continue to organize the social through a concept of sexual difference according to which some bodies can actually be a woman or a man in an objectively true sense.

Of course the documentary is also derivative of a long tradition of armchair slumming–it even boasts in its opening sequence that it will take viewers “on a journey inside this new world.” One other moment, however, take us into the heart of the problematic desire (on the part of adults) for the transgender child to be a creature of the present and the future. After the opening scene, where 9-year-old Lia outlines her transition, the camera shifts to stock footage of female impersonators from the mid twentieth century. The narrator chimes in:

“Just a generation ago, it was adults, not children, who changed genders. Usually late in life, and often in the shadows. But today, as transgender adults gain wider acceptance, many children are transitioning too.”

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The imagery is troubling, though not entirely in a negative sense. While female impersonation, well into the 1960s, included many people who may have later gone on to understand themselves as transsexual or transgender, the narrator doesn’t give any hint of the categorical complexity at hand. After the work of Magnus Hirschfeld and Havelock Ellis in the 1910s, “transvestism” and “eonism” generally encompassed what was not called “transsexuality” or “transsexualism” with any regularity until the mid 1950s–and “transgender” would not arrive on the scene for another 40 years after that. Given the bizarre and epistemically violent recent decision to ban cisgender drag queens from Glasgow pride celebrations because they might “offend” transgender participants, the historicization seems sorely needed as a public and political pedagogy.

In any case, the narrator’s history is lesson is flat out wrong in other ways. Adults did not all transition late in life or “in the shadows”–as early as the 1940s there were extensive national networks of transvestites in the United States corresponding, hosting social gatherings, and strategizing about how to live openly and politically as women. The narrator’s logic, however, is not even about empiricism: it aims to ground transgender children’s medical and political claim to legitimacy in the precedent of adults who have already paved the way. The move is a common one for the child in Western culture, a creature deprived of our basic political ontology: to be a speaking subject. No wonder Growing Up Trans places so much emphasis on children’s perfect elocution of adult discourses of gender dysphoria. What they say is still not taken as seriously as an adult, but there can nevertheless be no room to stray from an adult-like script.

The effect of the narrator’s move has a second imperative: it makes transgender children valuable, imparting in them and soliciting from them a biological futurity in their endocrine systems, their hypothalamuses, and the surface of their plastic bodies. Transgender children are taken out of history so that they are not seen as politicized bodies, but instead become available for the state and the medical establishment to cultivate alone. In that context, it almost goes without saying, children are reduced to a position of zero autonomy. And so for these reasons I find it helpful to point out that, in fact, children were “growing up trans” as early as “trans” had any signifying purchase. Children understood themselves, presented themselves, and were recognized as transsexual in the 1950s and the 1960s. Some found interested doctors willing to take them on as patients, overseeing their public transition, hormone therapy, name change, and in very rare cases, full sex reassignment surgery. There is no generational shift to speak of, it turns out–at least not in the way that Frontline conceives of it.

As just one example from the archival research going into my book project, consider this letter and juxtapose it with the documentary. After a short, autobiographical article on “transsexualism” appeared in the Evansville Courier in 1966, “L.T.” (pseudonym) wrote to its author, who subsequently forwarded the letter to Harry Benjamin, by then the most well recognized endocrinologist and doctor seeing transsexual patients, including children:

I read the article about you in the ‘Evansville Courier’ Wednesday…You see, the changes which have occurred in your body, have also taken place in me. I’m only 15 years old, but I look, talk, feel, and usually subconsciously act like a girl.


Mr. Nelson, I do want to be a girl badly! You see, there is this boy whom I am simply crazy about. Sir, I know what you go through! Believe me, I do! Wanting to be a girl and can’t be. It’s hell on earth.

Please send me the names and addressed of your doctors. I would like to write them and see if I too could be changed so as to do greater things in the world. Please answer me! This is not a joke! I swear it!

There are countless other examples, dozens of letters preserved in doctors’ archives from children as young as 12 or 13 (presumably, those much younger did not have the resources to write doctors or other adults, conversant in the medical idiom of transsexuality). The ease of familiarity with narratives of transsexuality and the ability to reach out through letter-writing to a broader community of transgender people in the 1960s make this letter evidence of a far greater range of autonomy and activity on the part of transgender children some 50 years before they are supposed to exist, if we follow the narrative PBS rehearses.

While I watch with great excitement the continuing proliferation of transgender children in the public sphere, then, I am reminded of Susan Stryker and Aren Aizura’s critical insight in the introduction to The Transgender Studies Reader 2: “Transgender…is not an obscure, minor, exotic, or emergent topic. It is a common–increasingly common–feature of our world, and we need to ask ourselves why it is perpetually positioned in the media and public discourse as ‘only now’ arriving” (3).

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The Value of the Future (Women’s Studies Quarterly, “Child”)

The newest special issue of Women’s Studies Quarterly, “Child,” is a blockbuster, edited by  Sarah Chinn and Anna Mae Duane. You don’t want to miss any of it. I have an essay in the volume that first began as a series of blog posts. You can take a look at “The Value of the Future: The Child as Human Capital and the Neoliberal Labor of Race” by clicking here.


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Book Review: Testo Junkie (Beatriz Preciado)

I have a book review of Beatriz Preciado’s Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era in the next issue of Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory. Here is a digital version to peruse–be sure to read the whole issue when it is released!

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Difference and Repetition (Video)

This performance flows from a collective reading group in which Chrissy Nadler and I, bit by bit, read Gilles Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition. Originally performed at the 2014 Cultural Studies Association annual meeting, it has since been converted to a digital project. Originally his doctoral thesis, but not published for 15 years, Difference and Repetition is often described as Deleuze’s most “traditional” philosophical monograph. Divided into six chapters, it systematically seeks to reframe the philosophy of difference while also providing a counter-genealogy of difference no longer subordinated to “the fours iron collars of” representation: identity in the concept, opposition in the predicate, analogy in judgement and resemblance in perception.

Still, we found in reading it much more than a slow and methodical reconstruction of philosophy and ontology. With that in mind, we want to offer a performative reassembly of Difference and Repetition. Our piece aims to utilize our bodies, voices and affects to produce an embodied, rather than linear, understanding of the text. What follows will highlight the complication of representation and limitations of “knowing” through exploring other possibilities for participating in and with a traditional philosophical text. In Deleuze’s undoing of the dialectic there is still space needed to account for what was formerly understood as oppositional. Making creative use of ourselves as two different bodies, we hope to produce in and with you an emergent sense of difference that is non-dualistic.

My thanks go to Chrissy for converting the piece into its digital format and making it shareable here.

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TSQ 1.3, Decolonizing the Transgender Imaginary

TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly continues its exciting project of creating a home for transgender studies with its second issue, Decolonizing the Transgender Imaginary, edited by Aren Z. Aizura, Trystan Cotten, Carsten Balzer/Carla LaGata, Marcia Ochoa, and Salvador Vidal-Ortiz.

I am so pleased to have an essay in this special issue: “The Technical Capacities of the Body: Assembling Race, Technology and Transgender.” It greatly expands on some of the work I first started on this blog. Have a read!

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Human Capital, Organic Capital, and the (Labor) Economy of Human Beings as a Race

We are accustomed to thinking of the concept of “human capital” as a product of the conditions of neoliberal labor, or the reinvestment of the economic thinking of neoliberal economists by the state and private sector since the 1970s. As I have written before on this blog, looking at Foucault’s lecture on human capital in The Birth of Biopolitics, the concept works to makes labor itself into a form of capital, a resource that lives in the human organism’s body. An array of social and biological practices and processes are hence recast as investment practices, and labor can symmetrically be solicited from even the most supple processes of life and embodiment, collapsing the meaningful distinction (if there ever was one) between work and life-making activity.

There are, however, interesting precedents to the neoliberal theory of human capital, whose genealogy I will briefly review below. In the generative interwar generation in Austria, where the oft-named “Red Vienna” generated a startling number of intellectuals who would continue to cast long shadows on the twentieth century and beyond (one of them, for example, is Freud), figures an early sociologist and economist, Rudolf Goldscheid (1870-1931). His work has yet to be translated into English and, full disclosure, I am not lucky enough to read German, so I am relying here on some well done scholarship by a German speaking demographer, Gudrun Exner. Interestingly, it seems that prior to the elaboration of human capital, a certain social democratic, reformist theory of life as a resource for a humanized capital was already in circulation. That it was taken up in interwar Vienna by major proponents of positive eugenics adds an important layer to the genealogy of human capital: the investment in and enhanceability of the modern racialized body as a project of improving the qualitative output of labor.

But first, and briefly: human capital was introduced into neoliberal economics in the 1950s by Jacob Mincer, who worked, famously, with Gary S. Becker to elaborate the concept over the ensuing several decades as a theory of familial economics. Mincer’s doctrinal basis is a carefully selected passage in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations discussing “fixed capital,” a form of capital held as stock for the production, but not the circulation, of commodities (viz., “of which the characteristic is, that it affords a revenue or profit without circulating or changing masters”). According to Smith, there are four types of fixed capital: machines, buildings, land, and, in his words, “the acquired and useful abilities of all the inhabitants and members of a society.” This last type is what comes to be called by Mincer human capital. As Smith continues:

The acquisition of such talents, by the maintenance of the acquirer during his education, study, or apprenticeship, always costs a real expense, which is a capital fixed and realized, as it were, in his person. Those talents, as they make a part of his fortune, so do they likewise that of the society to which he belongs. The improved dexterity of a workman may be considered in the same light as a machine or instrument of trade which facilitates and abridges labour, and which, though it costs a certain expense, repays that expense with a profit.

Of course, this will greatly annoy Marx, who takes a moment in the second volume of Capital to ridicule the exact sentence that Mincer would later elevate to a neoliberal dogma. For Marx, Smith is mistaken in dividing capital into fixed and circulating components in the first place, in that he thereby effectively ignores the actual operation of labor power: because labor power as such does not become a commodity for Marx but retrospectively, precisely when it circulates on the market, the value of the worker’s human capital is for him always already an element of variable capital, not fixed capital:

The “acquired and useful abilities” which Smith mentions under the head of fixed capital are on the contrary component parts of circulating capital, since they are “abilities” of the wage-labourer and he has sold his labour together with its “abilities” (Capital, Vol II, Chapter 10)

As Morgan Adamson clarifies in an excellent genealogy of human capital, however, it is precisely the historical collapse of the distinction between fixed and variable capital that Foucault details in The Birth of Biopolitics, challenging the traditional Marxist view of labor. As a biopolitical measure, what she calls “the strategy of human capital” literally works insofar as it measures the “economic vitality” of populations. The actual value assigned to human capital is in part a violent imposition of objective measure, a claim to establish as fixed capital something as vague as, say, education or innate aptitude and skill (or race, as I want to argue). Yet it is also, in the same breathe, and attempt to manage the economic potentiality of populations through their measure, through the measure of their human capital (274).  It is undoubtedly never a fully successful imposition upon the body and populations, but its lack of precision is actually generative of the activating force of its measure, its ability to solicit more and more from life.

Several decades before Mincer’s, Goldscheid’s roaming interdisciplinary work, which mixes demography, sociology, philosophy and social democratic style political economy, formulated a concept of “organic capital.”  The problem to which organic capital was posed as the solution was the declining birth rate in Western Europe following World War I, which had combined earlier Malthusian anxieties about the poor match between demographics and resource distribution with increasingly popular, hardline social Darwinist eugenics. With the added threat of degeneration of those being born, the lack of quantitative increase in population was cast as nothing less than race suicide.

In marked contrast to this negative eugenics, Goldscheid’s “Economy of Human Beings” suggested a completely different strategy. Instead of trying to quantitatively increase the labor supply by increasing the overall population, a qualitative approach could focus on intensifying the investment in and care for the children that were being born, hence eventually increasing their future labor-output to compensate for the decline in births. In one and the same reformist move, the problems of Malthus and Francis Galton would be overcome, while simultaneously and humanistically uplifting the living conditions of the working classes, particularly in the realms of health and education.  Not only would qualitative output be increased by caring for living bodies, but various drags on the economy would also be lifted to further encourage production, such as disease and premature death.  As Goldscheid put it in 1908 (this is Exner’s translation):

The generation of human labour force is not only a technical, but first of all an organic problem. If the quality of the labour force decreases due to an increase of the birth rate, or if this quality threatens to deteriorate over the course of time, the production of working material will soon prove to be uneconomic…we can only speak of profitable breeding of men if the workers, in their period of productivity, produce more than they have need of during their entire lives, including in the unproductive ears, to satisfy the necessities of their development [Entwicklung, a word also used in contemporaneous biology and evolutionary science].

Exner, for his part, downplays the language of eugenics in Goldscheid’s writings, but it seems that perhaps he conflates negative and positive eugenics and thus hopes to avoid associating organic capital with the former. I in fact first came accross organic capital in the work of contemporaneous Austrian physicians, endocrinologists, and municipal officials who, in interwar Vienna, aimed to put the theory into practice through a massive social welfare state that would improve the individual body and the body politic through a form of race hygiene involving hospitals, schools, and other public projects for the working class.

What this brief comparative genealogy helps to do, first of all, is displace some of the self-referential authority of neoliberal economics, in that the economic problematization of the living body as a repository of capital was also a socialist concern (it would be interesting, for example, to look at how the concept was negotiated in the Soviet states after World War II). Moreover, it reenforces the centrality of race to the project of human/organic capital, underscoring its eugenic origins in Europe–with colonial counterparts that merit study. This is useful not only as a historical exercise, but also in light of the problematization of the racialized body under contemporary neoliberal conditions, particularly in the United States, where race functions as a definitively important variable in the unequal distribution of investment in human capital, as well as the coerced premature social and biological death assigned to bodies of color, particularly black bodies. Understanding contemporary labor practices as inheritors of a genealogy of a eugenic economy of the human might go some way to reminding us that race is not a supplement to understanding neoliberal and financialized capital. Race is rather there from the beginning.

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Discourse should not…? (We are all opérateurs)

Instead of adding directly (the Nietzsche titles on my bookshelf glare at me sternly–don’t be reactive!) to some of the heated recent blogging, tweeting, and other exhausting backs-and-forths over the power of words and the question of self-policing of language in feminist, queer, and critical race fields of knowledge production, I feel moved to think out loud about what “discourse” is and how it can be usefully analyzed. Some of the tense debate of recent months, not to mention days, seem to me to be a repetition of questions raised (but undoubtedly not well answered) by the linguistic turn: do words hurt? How? Why? And what is the function of discourse in an era of endemic injury-identity?

Still from La Voix de son maître (1978).

In 1976, Foucault authored a short and remarkable text, “Le discours ne doît pas être pris comme…,” an accompaniment to the film project La Voix de son maître, the documentary debut of directors Gérard Mordillat and Nicolas Phillibert. (The text is included in the third volume of Dits et écrits, but unless I am mistaken it has not been translated into English.) Mordillat and Phillibert’s film, which profiles managers at twelve large companies, has come to be remembered as a groundbreaking diagnostic of the transition in the French economy from a dying industrial Fordism to a financialized capitalism. By not interviewing workers at the companies and juxtaposing their voice dialectically to that of the bosses, but instead inviting the bosses to set the agenda and create the setting for their interviews so that their strategic logic could be laid bare, Mordillat and Phillibert manage to pull off escaping, in Foucault’s estimation, a simplistic oppositional understanding of what a discourse is (i.e. managerial discourse v. worker discourse). For this reason, we are given an incredible opportunity to critically analyze the emergence of managerial discourse in the transition to post-Fordism.

Instead of treating discourse merely representationally, in the case of La Voix de son maître, “It is a matter of revealing discourse as a strategic field, where the components, tactics, and weapons never cease to circulate from one camp to the other, to be exchanged between adversaries, and to be used against those who use them” (my translation). If there is an ongoing struggle here, rather than a dialectical opposition that would end in clear victory (such victories always being surface distractions for an exercise of power relations), it is because the discourse is the medium common to the two struggling forces at hand. A discourse is not a mere accumulation of things said or sayable about a certain object, a set of structural rules for its intelligibility, nor a brute epistemological grid; all these are second-order derivatives of discourse as a field of strategic confrontation of force, where discourse is first of all “a weapon of power, of control, of subjection, of qualification and disqualification.”

Foucault’s short piece ends thusly: “Discourse is, with respect to the relation of forces, not merely a surface of inscription, but the technician” [un opérateur]. In the introduction to Society Must Be Defended, Arnold Davidson translates these final few sentences, ending them as “not merely a surface of inscription, but something that brings about effects” (xx). The capaciousness of that translation gives me pause; I see in Foucault’s deployment of opérateur an interesting evocation of the technical operation of machinery, something that draws our attention closer to the ever-reticent word dispositif that continues to elude useful translation. Discourse is not first and foremost a representational field but a dispositif that corresponds to an exercise of power; one consequence of that exercise is representation, but we must not mistake one level for another.

Davidson helpfully places “Le discours ne doît pas être pris comme…” alongside Society Must Be Defended, for Foucault takes up in those lectures perhaps most explicitly the project of “the logic of strategics” (xix), which Davidson defines as an attempt at “provid[ing] an alternative system of representation of the nondiscursive social field,” that is to say, a mode of representation that does not derive from juridical sovereignty. Part of this project entails re-approaching discourse, no longer so much in the mode of archeology under which went Foucault’s early works, but through what I think could be fairly termed a materialist treatment of discourse that itself begins at that “nondiscursive social field.” Discourse is here a specific weapon configured by a certain exercise of power, often a struggle for the truth effects of knowledge. As Davidson summarizes, then, discourse operates on two levels in the lectures Foucault gave in 1975-76: a “tactical productivity” and a “strategic integration” (xx) wherein truth is a weapon in a battle (xxi). In the second lecture of Society Must Be Defended, Foucault touches on this question by way of the enigmatic phrase “an ascending analysis of power” (30), which gives context to the two levels described by Davidson. Using the more general (if no less specific in its deployment) term “power,” Foucault explains:

it is important not to, so to speak, deduce power by beginning at the center and trying to see how far down it goes, or two what extent it is reproduced or renewed in the most atomistic elements of society. I think that, on the contrary…we should make an ascending analysis of power, or in other words begin with its infinitesimal mechanisms, which have their own history, their own trajectory, their own techniques and tactics, and then look at how these mechanisms of power, which have their solidity and in a sense, their own technology, have been and are invested, colonized, used, inflected, transformed, displaced, extended, and so on by increasingly general mechanism and forms of overall domination (30).

This passage is well read through the narrower lens of the strategic analysis of discourse as correlate of a certain exercise of power. That is to say, an ideological critique of discourse on representational terms is to already begin too late, to fall into the trap of a discourse on truth, to capitulate to its victory by refusing to see its tactical mode and strategic organization. Instead, a discourse should not be taken tautologically, which would be to accept its globality and self-referentiality; one must begin at its capillaries and seize upon its diffuse, dis-integrated contexts that are only through historical territorializations given an integration. In this mode of analysis we too become, merely by reading, tactical players in the strategic field.

Of course Foucault is continuing a line of analysis here that, surely at the time, took elliptical aim at Derrida (in La société punitive, the lectures from 1972-73, he takes time to directly critique “il n’y a pas hors texte,” continuing the spat inaugurated over Histoire de la folie). More than that, though, Foucault renders the content of discourse a relatively useless field of intervention. To quarrel over content will have no effect on the tactical organization of a discourse. As he says in reference to the founding of the authority of the university for the disciplines of knowledge in the early nineteenth century, what is at stake here is “a control that applies not to the content of statements themselves, to their conformity or nonconformity to a certain truth, but to the regularity of enunciations” (184).

Keeping that in mind, it strikes me as telling that, to take a radioactive example, the angered reaction at a certain recent academic blog post about “trigger warnings” and censorship have focused on the content of the discourse put forth (it is not true, it is false, etc.), not the tactical strategy it was (whether or not it succeeded being another matter) attempting to put into play, and whether or not that strategy might be one worth dialoguing about (even if the blog post in question presented itself as ultra-sovereign and truthful, hardly inviting dialogue). Investing our analytico-political energy in a struggle over the content of a discourse is, I think, following Foucault, to begin at a derivative level, much to our loss. It is also extremely exhausting (an aesthetic-affective-political problem also worthy of its own discussion) because it does not alter the exercise of disciplinary knowledge carried out under even the most anti-disciplinary names, such as feminist, queer, or critical race studies.

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A Juvenile Species: Neoteny, Recapitulation and Childhood

Bergson’s method notwithstanding, I confess to rarely (that is, almost never) proceeding in my thinking from intuition. Chaotic, unconscious speculation followed by exhaustive rumination might be more apt (blame a scientisitc super ego?). In this case, though, I am making a brief “agential cut” (Karen Barad’s phrase) into an intuition I have long harbored: that the child in Western modernity is always already made to serve a recapitulative function, and that this installs an unbridgeable onto-epistemological gap between adults and children that has yet to be punctured in the slightest. The child-form exists only insofar as it organizes the evolution and development of the human organism according to the parallel popularized by the biologist Ernst Haeckel in the 1860s: that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, a formula that pervades every field of knowledge and material apparatus involved with children, especially those that we are habituated to naming race, sex, and sexuality.

For all of the new/neo/feminist materialist work circulating at the moment that aims to repair an epistemological fault (in both senses) in the humanities by no longer separating the social and the somatic, or the natural and the cultural, I remain stubbornly convinced that the child continues to act as unthinkable substrate to so many attempts at nondualist, nonteleological thought. By way of suggestive exposition, I offer three recapitulationist passages, each followed by some nascent reflections from my ongoing dissertation work.

First, to specify the terrain of my intuition and to represent the biological sciences (especially evolution) in their most critical mode, consider Stephen Jay Gould’s following remarks from his very carefully considered and exhaustive study, Ontogeny and Phylogeny (1977):

Neoteny has been a (probably the) major determinant of human evolution. When we recognize the undeniable role of retardation in human evolution, the data of neoteny can be rescued from previous theories that made them so unpopular. Human development has slowed down. Within this ‘matrix of retardation,’ adaptive features of ancestral juveniles are easily retained. Retardation as a life-history strategy for longer learning and socialization may be far more important in human evolution than any of its morphological consequences (9).

I should add, by way of emphasizing my reading, that Gould’s book includes an entire chapter that details the influence of the theory of recapitulation on the sciences of child development and primary education, so he cannot be accused of omission. This passage, with its somewhat difficult to digest casual–if nonetheless technical, certainly for 1977, when Ontogeny and Phylogeny was published–use of the term “retardation” from evolutionary biology raises some questions as to the “natureculture” (to borrow from Donna Haraway) in play here. The consensus that humans are born relatively prematurely compared to other animals (since it takes us a good one and a half- to two decades to mature) is not so much the concern here. The biological postulate of a general human neoteny becomes, however, wedded to a certain value that, despite Gould’s otherwise excellent critical readings in science, is revealing for its presence. “Retardation as a life-history strategy,” in his reading of it, after all, concerns “longer learning and socialization.” This is in part a defensive strategy: by making learning and socialization the consequences of the juvenile quality of the human, Gould expels any of the politically nasty morphological consequences he mentions in passing at the end of the sentence–consequences that have long underwritten epistemologies of racial and sexual inferiority. Nevertheless, that “learning and socialization” are presumed by Gould to be so value neutral as to not need further contextualization is where my intuition enters into play. For what is this prematurely born human species if not one uncompleted, vulnerable, and requiring, precisely, pedagogy and social interpellation? And are these two assumptions not the fundamental biological argument for government of the self and others as a “natural” capacity of humans–both an argument for human exceptionalism and, in turn, a naturalisation of capitalist and Enlightenment political economy?

To represent the anti-humanist and social theory side of this coin, and to specify my point, let me turn now to my second passage, from Lacan’s famous essay on the Mirror Stage:

In man, however, this relation to nature is altered by a certain dehiscence at the heart of the organism, a primordial Discord betrayed by the signs of uneasiness and motor unco-ordination of the neo-natal months. The objective notion of the anatomical incompleteness of the pyramidal system and likewise the presence of certain humoral residues of the maternal organism confirm the view I have formulated as the fact of a real specific prematurity of birth in man.
It is worth noting, incidentally, that this is a fact recognized as such by embryologists, by the term foetalization.

Lacan’s somewhat odd (at least out of context) insistence on a vocabulary of empirical objectivity in his borrowing from the scientific disciplines in which Gould is fluent is not exactly at issue, here–that is, I am not offering an epistemological corrective to a scientific discourse. Spend five minutes observing an infant less than a year old and it is hard to retort that Lacan is merely socially constructing the programming of the social order, deluding us all.

Again, it is the value and the function of premature birth and foetalization here that trouble me, and no doubt because this is where the child carries the labor of the Lacanian explanation of the entry into language and subjectivity through the Imaginary mirror stage as prelude to the even more intense violence of the Symbolic. The child’s “signs of uneasiness and motor unco-ordination” are interpreted as essentially psychotic (necessitating the equally delusional anesthetic of the primitive ego resultant of the mirror stage) only by a hunch: as so many psychoanalysts will point out, you can’t analyze a newborn child and there is no way to prove that the mental life of infants or pre-Symbolic children is radically chaotic except to say that adults are not very psychotic for the most part. This assumption is only so by measure of degree of likeness and resemblance to adult subjectivity. Hence, ontogeny once again recapitulates phylogeny, for the only point of children, it would seem, is to provide a “retarded” mold for the eventual recreation of adult sameness from generation to generation (apparently an exhausting, slow process).

What does the founding of the social-somatic, which Gould and Lacan together evoke, or the natureculture of the human organism, through a recapitulation theory of a juvenile human species, assume a priori? The naturalness of pedagogy itself, something of which we should be eminently beware after Foucault’s careful and exhaustive tracing of the pedagogization of the species, race, and nation through sexuality as the node connecting the individuation and the population. But of course we could go further genealogically and turn to Plato’s The Laws or Republic, where ample dictates about the naturalness of molding children abound. This is not a new idea, but it is utterly, structurally pervasive. As a result of it, there is nothing available by which to think the child other than as a recapitulation of the history of adults. In a very accurate sense, there has never been any way of understanding what a child is. A child has only ever been a certain degree of incomplete adult.

This is not because there is no other possible way of understanding that what we call children are different from what we call adults. The centrality of pedagogy to carefully educating us all on the natural recapitulation of adults in children makes that very clear. As a final example, then, note Dr. Spock’s pedagogy of recapitulation in his famous parenting manual, Baby and Child Care (this is from the 1968 revised edition):

Each child as he develops is retracing the whole history of mankind, physically and spiritually, step by step. A baby starts off in the womb as a single tiny cell, just the way the first living thing appeared in the ocean. Weeks later, as he lies in the amniotic fluid in the womb, he has gills like a fish. Towards the end of his first year of life, when he learns to clamber to his feet, he’s celebrating that period of millions of years ago when man’s ancestors got up off all fours…The child in the years after six gives up part of his dependence on his parents. He makes it his business to find out how to fit into the world outside his family. He takes seriously the rules of the game. He is probably reliving that stage of human history when our wild ancestors found it was better not to roam the forest in independent family groups but to form larger communities (229).

The point of sharing this passage is to point out just how much labor of pedagogy it takes to reiterate, over and over, that everything we see in the child is a recapitulation of ourselves. It is precisely not self-evident but a matter of an education both social and somatic, but nonetheless not immune to a genealogical unmooring in its overstated confidence as a discourse of truth (my dwelling on the non-self evident founding of the self-evident is a somewhat Derridean stress in my thinking here, too, that I might like to pursue elsewhere). What else is Dr. Spock doing here, after all, except teaching parents to see in their children the naturalization of the passage from the state of nature to the social contract of the body politic?

Taken together, Gould, Lacan and Spock suggest that the function of the child as the recapitulation of the adult form, with its attendant juvenilization of the species, precisely in its utter pervasiveness, should alert us to a struggle internal to a discourse of truth on the human. An intuition upon which I shall endeavor to follow up.

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Scholium on Sexting and Cyberbullying: Consuming Children

After delivering a paper on cyberbullying and sexting at Theorizing the Web 2014 last month I was asked an interesting question from the audience: was I arguing for mobile phones as a contemporary zone of privacy for the child?

My improvised response at the time was to somewhat recalibrate my discussion of mobile phones by accenting the genealogical mode in which I was discussing children’s sexuality in my paper. I replied that mobile phones have become the latest zone of struggle over the necessarily hybrid function that the modern family serves, but that I had no investment myself in declaring them to be either private or public, nor to assign any preformed concept of “agency” to children texting on their phones. Indeed, to this point, the most focused discussion of mobile phones in my paper had revolved around an analysis of private spyware software marketed to parents to install on their children’s phones in order to conduct erotic investigations of their ostensibly “secret” lives online and in texts.

The question nevertheless stuck with me in its excellent diagnosis of how children’s sexuality and technological conduct are adjudicated and governed. In my paper I had leaned on a passage from Foucault’s Collège de France lectures, Abnormal:

the child’s sexual body serves as the unit, so to speak, of exchange.  Parents are told: There is something in the child’s body that belongs imprescriptibly to you and that you will never have to give up because it will never abandon you: their sexuality.  The child’s sexual body belongs, and will always belong, to the family space, and no one else will ever have any power over or claim on this body.  However, when we create for you this field of power so total and complete, we ask you to give us in return your children’s bodies, or, if you prefer, their abilities.

Here, Foucault helps us understand that a discourse on children’s sexuality is invented in Europe in the nineteenth century to serve as a vital manifold between the public and private spheres, interlocking two regions of disciplinary and biopower in order to reciprocally intensify one another: on the one hand, children’s bodies are obtained for the uses of the state in education and later the workforce (generating value); on the other hand, by letting children’s sexuality endlessly return to the familial scene (think of so many Oedipal complexes rehearsed on psychoanalyst’s couches, to be sure, but also more banal visits to the doctor by anxious parents hoping to confirm whether or not their child is growing up properly and healthy), adults are given a sense of authority over children that cannot be extinguished either. (In the United States, for instance, the Fourteenth Amendment has been interpreted to include a right to “parental autonomy” according to which parents retain the ultimate privilege in punishment, pedagogy and governance). The very point of this system is to continually play one zone of governance against the other, in a spiral of intensifying extension of the global discourse on children’s sexuality.

As the issue of mobile phones enters into this transfer point between public and private in an issue like cyberbullying or sexting, we see very clearly the focus placed on the child’s sexuality as unit of exchange: either children’s bad behavior is to be punished by the law and school administrators, or else by parents, and it often shuttles back and forth between the two. Who is ultimately “responsible” for child sexting and cyberbullying endlessly rehearses arguments for attributing culpability to one and then the other side, without resolution (see the very interesting criminal case on children sexting, Miller v Skumanick [2009]). Foucault reminds us that it is a mistake, genealogically, to take at face value the subjective experience of sexuality as private, meaning that so too would it be to argue “for” mobile phones as a private space for children. There is no such pure function for children’s sexuality, it is always a hybrid entity.

And yet this pedagogical discourse on children’s sexuality, I would add, in finessing Foucault’s point, is complicated by a rival historical discourse of American consumerism. As modern children and adolescents were carefully educated over the twentieth century to become the most important national consumer demographic, installing an entire cultural apparatus around the buying habits of youth, a tension that is cresting with mobile phones today began to take root. The more and more children were endowed with a market-legitimated consumer power, the more their sexuality (and now gender identity) came to be understood as an expression of a consumer identity (think about the extent to which the popular version of the theory of gender performativity does not depart from this understanding of the self-made consuming subject).  The most effective way for self-possession as individualism to accrue to children and adolescents has been to couch gender and sexuality as kinds of private property that adults are not allowed to take away from children (at least, not entirely).  Hence, a tension now exists in issues of sexting or cyberbullying between Foucault’s version of “unit of exchange” and the demand on the part of children to be consumers of their own sexuality (and gender identity).  It is within the context of this tension that battles over children’s use of mobile phones must be understood.

For this reason it is strangely naive to adapt an adult-derived theory of subjectivity to children and describe them as somehow eminently or inherently queer in their participation in the education of desire that is American consumer culture, as Jack Halberstam does in a chapter on box office animated films in The Queer Art of Failure. Instead, we might understand that the child’s sexuality and gender sit yet again at the manifold between two mirroring discourses of government, one in which adults decide what is best for the child, and the other in which children decide what truly expresses their selves. Neither can but alternate endlessly to describe the “truth.”

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Ontology and Materialism Working Group at #CSA2014

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The Ontology and Materialism Working Group of the Cultural Studies Association is excited to invite you to our two panels today, Friday, May 30. For more information on the working group’s focus, click here.

Friday, May 30, 11:00 am – 12:30 pm, B
Location: West Room, OC
Affective Labor and the Labor of Affect

Chair: Julian Gill-­Peterson, Rutgers University


Margaret Denike, Dalhousie University
The Biopolitical Labor of Affect

Julian Gill­Peterson, Rutgers University
The Value of the Future: The Child Entrepreneur and the Simulation of Labor

Karen Gregory, The Graduate Center, CUNY
Affective and Immaterial Labor in Light of the Derivative

Peter McDonald, University of Chicago
Satisfaction Guaranteed: Towards an Ontology of Fun

Friday, May 30, 2:00 – 3:30 pm, A
Location: North Room, OC
The Politics of Emergence

Chair: Jean-­Thomas Tremblay, University of Chicago


Christina Nadler, The Graduate Center, CUNY
The Ontological Emergence of Populations

Summer Kim Lee, New York University
Yellow Horror: The Curse of Asian Women in Supernatural Horror Film

E. Hella Tsaconas, New York University
The Transgender Artist Who Punches Clay,’ or: the materiality of becoming image

Jean­Thomas Tremblay, The Graduate Center, CUNY
Toward a Theory of Emergence: Thinking in the Interval of Luce Irigaray’s
Nonrepresentational Aesthetics/Ethics of Difference

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