The Figure of the Child

In this session, we will be discussing the assigned readings for the course, including:

Agenda Setting: what was most interesting and/or mystifying about these readings? Please point to concepts, pages, or passages to guide our discussion (of Edelman & Sedgwick especially).

  • (Berlant) “The infantile citizen has a memory of the nation and a tactical relation to its operation. But no version of sustained agency accompanies the national system here. It provides information but no memory-driven access to its transformative use.”
  • (Edelman) We are no more able to conceive of a politics without a fantasy of the future than we are able to conceive of a future without the figure of the Child. That figural Child alone embodies the citizen as an ideal, entitled to claim full rights to its future share in the nation's good, though always at the cost of limiting the rights "real" citizens are allowed.
  • “Big Bird Got Vaccinated,” NPR Nov. 8, 2021

Atilla's Background on Psychoanalytic Theory

Lee Edelman, “The Future is Kid Stuff,” No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Durham, Duke UP, 2004), 20.

Presentation on Natality, Childhood and Futurity by Jasmine Baxter

  • Berlant, Lauren. “The Theory of Infantile Citizenship” in Public Culture, 1993, Vol. 5.
  • Edelman, Lee. “The Future is Kid Stuff” in No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004.
  • Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. “How to Bring Your Kids Up Gay” in Social Text, 1991, No. 29.
  • Gill-Peterson, Jules. “Toward a Trans of Color Critique of Medicine” in Histories of the Transgender Child. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018.

“The Theory of Infantile Citizenship” by Lauren Berlant

Overview: Berlant discusses TV’s recurrent “pilgrimage to Washington” storyline as a means of national pedagogy--of a production of citizenship and national culture that often centers around children shedding their innocence/ignorance towards national mechanisms. To become an adult here means to “disidentify with the horizon of the politically-taken-for-granted whom the nation seeks to dominate,” or to forget/render impractical the idea of an America with utopian politics (405; 399). Adults humiliate and admire children (or other infantilized subjects) as they come into knowing, suddenly realizing the nation’s incapacity. She takes an episode of The Simpsons, “Mr. Lisa Goes to Washington,” to demonstrate how this plays out.

Keywords: citizenship, nation(al), nationalism, patriotism, Washington, American, media, pedagogy, children, childhood, infantile, allegory, metaphor, ideal, agency


“These intertexts and many others structured by pilgrimages to Washington all foreground the problem, place, and promise of media in the business of making nationality.” (398)

“She wins with her essay, ‘The Roots of Democracy,’ because she uses not just analogy but a national allegory that links organically the nation’s natural growth to the emergence of its political facicity. In addition, her speech is itself an allegory of infantile citizenship, for the nation grows out of ‘something so fragile, so pure,’ so young.” (403)

“In other words, national knowledge has itself become a modality of national amnesia, an incitement to forgetting that leaves simply the patriotic trace, for real and metaphorically infantilized citizens, that confirms the nation exists and that we are in it.” (407)

“The Future is Kid Stuff” by Lee Edelman

Overview: By Atilla!

Some Personal Highlights:

“But it is also, I suggest, what makes such announcements so oppressively political--political not in the partisan terms implied by the media consultant, but political in a far more insidious way: political insofar as the fantasy subtending the image of the Child invariably shapes the logic within which the political itself must be thought.” (2)

“...Reproductive futurism: terms that impose an ideological limit on political discourse as such, preserving in the process the absolute privilege of heteronormativity by rendering unthinkable, by casting outside the political domain, the possibility of a queer resistence to this organizing principle of communal relations.” (2)

“As a particular story, in other words, of why storytelling fails, one that takes both the value and the burden of that failure upon itself, queer theory, as I construe it, marks the ‘other’ side of polictics: the ‘side’ outside of all political sides, committed as they are, on every side, to futurism’s unquestioned good.” (7)

“How to Bring Your Kids Up Gay” by Eve Sedgwick

Overview: Using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-III) as a starting point, Sedgwick discusses psychoanalytic perspectives around gay “male” children, especially those who are effeminate. They trace the pathological labels, explaining how feminine boys are constructed as abject figures for psychology as well as gay causes, and how this is (somewhat?) a function of the naturalization of gender and of the “flexibility” behind what it means to be masculine and human. In the end, they prompt space for an “erotically invested” affirmation of and desire/need for gay people’s existence.

Keywords: feminine, effeminate, masculine, affirmation, gay-affirmative, child, value


“Revisionist analysts seem prepared to like some male homosexuals, but the healthy homosexual is one who (a) is already grown up, and (b) acts masculine.” (19)

“A more understandable reason than effeminophobia, however, is the conceptual need of the gay movement to interrupt a long tradition of viewing gender and sexuality as continuous and collapsable categories--a tradition of assuming that anyone, male or female, who desires a man must by definition be feminine; and that anyone, male or femal who desires a woman must by the same token be masculine.” (20)

“ seems merely an unfortunate, perhaps rectifiable misunderstanding or accident that for a proto-gay child to identify ‘masculinely’ might involve his identification with his own erasure.” (23)

“What whets these fantasies more dangerously, because more blandly, is the presentation, often in ostensibly or authentically gay-affirmative contexts, of biologically-based “explanations” for deviant behavior that are absolutely invariably couched in terms of ‘excess,’ deficiency,’ or ‘imbalance.’” (26)

“Toward a Trans of Color Critique of Medicine” by Jules Gill-Peterson

Overview: Jules sets out questioning the idea that trans children have not existed until recently when their existence both predates and informs the medical/scientific/biological invention(s) of gender. She asserts that they do have a history, however buried, and that the goal of medicine has always been to eradicate trans life in its developmental stages, as if “sex and gender were otherwise natural, unmodified forms in cisgender bodies” (6). She asserts that trans people do not and have never needed medical intervention to live trans lives, paying careful attention to people and language in the archive.

“Overall, Histories of the Transgender Child contests and carefully rereads the normative medical archive by beginning in the early twentieth century and working to undermine the model provided by transsexualiity for making trans life intelligble.” (17) / “...working to undermine medicine’s self-appointed authority and self-referential rationality from within by emphasizing the ways that trans people are actively involved with the contested production of medical knowledge despite lacking, in most cases, expert eduation and, especially in the case of trans children, often producing theories of trans life that drew as much from magic or fantasy as from science.” (21)

Keywords: Child, children, childhood, transsexual, transgender, intersex, history, plasticity, whiteness, invention


“By limiting trans children’s value to an abstract biological force through which medicine aimed to alter sex and gender as phenotypes, those children became living laboratories, proxies for working out broader questions about human sex and gender that had little investiment in their personhood. Children were by the design of medical discourse meant to recede into the background of the alteration of sex and gender by being reduced to resorvoirs of plasticity, the raw material of phenotype. Children became the incarnation and the etiology of sex’s plasticity as an abstract form of whiteness, the capacity to take on new form and be transformed by medical scientific intervention early on in life. And the twentieth-century discourse of child development naturalized this function in the medical clinic.” (3-4)

“‘Transsexuality’ is an artifact of a dominant knowledge system to be constantly questioned and undermined from the inside.” (9) [read alongside “wrong body narrative” passage at the bottom of page 16]

“Transsexuality is, rather, a medical discourse that distracts from forms of knowledge and being that are disqualified by its rationality and its timescale, minimizing a half-century of trans life and interaction with medicine that both precedes and informs it.” (12)

Discussion Prompts:

  1. Time to share quotes that struck readers--either in a positive or confusing or just different way.
  2. In what ways is the idea of the “natural” undergirding all of the selections for this week?
  3. Discuss threads of fantasy; of identification and disidentification.
  4. How does TV media shape, make, produce, and/or regulate citizenship? How might family do the same thing?
  5. How does infantilization work to control populations? Are there differences in how infantilization works in each piece? Do these differences say something collectively? (Derived from Gill-Peterson 10)