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Children’s Minds in the Line of Fire Blog

Considerations of the familial and the social in the formation of childhood subjectivity [1]
by Michael O’Loughlin

Psychoanalysis has been fruitful in characterizing how early occlusions can impair creativity and relational capacity. An excessive focus on familialism, however, has led to less interest in occlusions caused by the infiltration of ideological forces such as colonialism, neoliberalism, neofascism etc. which can limit the capacities of children to become agentic, creative human beings. I explore two types of events that expose children to peril. The first refers to a challenge that all infants and children face, namely the complexity of taking in the symbolic system of the world through encounter with the parental Other. This encounter works tolerably well most of the time, but occlusions, foreclosures, and misrecognitions can greatly complicate the construction of subjectivity. In extreme cases, as André Green noted, limitations on a child’s capacity may be so straitened that a child may be “forbidden to be”. The second type of precarity refers to children who experience misrecognition at the hands of sovereign authorities. A child may be placed in what Giorgio Agamben calls a “state of exception” by virtue of their identity as a child who is indigenous, a refugee, orphaned by war or genocide, trafficked for child or sexual labor, a member of a caste, class, sexual, ethnic, racial, religious, or other out-group, or through growing up in a repressive or colonized society. Or, indeed, a child may grow up with parents or ancestors who have suffered such circumstances and may experience intergenerational sequelae of familial or collective suffering. As Leonor Arfuch noted, the “radical disparity of the gaze” ensures that “the other does not attain the status of the human”. I am seeking to understand the melancholic sequelae of malignant familial and societal events and to ponder how we might enable a child to nurture a capacity for imagining self as agentic and creative or even as deserving of the right to exist.

Failure of the mirror: The consequences of foreclosure, occlusion, and misrecognition

Entering the symbolic and cultural world presents risk for all infants. Jean Laplanche has noted the primacy of alterity in the formation of the unconscious. Our sense of ourselves as subjects can only come through experiencing an Other. The inherent asymmetry of the caregiver-infant relationship means that there is a metabolic excess—that the infant necessarily takes in material that it is beyond their capacity to process. For a child in the presence of a psychically dead mother, André Green suggests, that mother is transformed from a potential source of vitality into “a distant figure, toneless, practically inanimate”. Such a child, instead of developing vitality and a robust capacity to reciprocate, will absorb the mother’s mourning and develop a blankness at the core of its being. 

Piera Aulagnier offers a description of the lacuna at the core of subjectivity when a child is subjected to metabolic excess within a family. Her work also allows us to understand how ideological systems such as colonialism, forced migration, state terror etc. can erase genealogical filiations and leave humans bereft of capacity to anchor meaning and think freely. Aulagnier begins with an analysis of how subjectivity is situated in discourse: The mother as “Speaking I” offers herself to the infant who, lacking a capacity to decode meaning, develops a pictographic representation of self from the tone, flow, and reciprocity of the mother’s utterances. By her speech the mother “indicates to him the limits of the possible and the allowable”. If the child can receive the mother’s speech pleasurably these representations will form the core of subjectivity. However, if the mother’s speech produces unpleasure the child will experience a blank space where intersubjectivity ought to reside. The crux is whether the appropriation of culture can be accomplished in a way that leaves the child with a sense of agency; whether the child will accumulate unmetabolized material that will reappear later through deferred action; or whether, in the most extreme case, occlusion is so totalizing and negating that the seeds of psychosis are set in place. As Aulagnier notes, when signification collapses “insanity is the extreme form of the only refusal acceptable to the I”.  With respect to sovereign authority, a danger is that a child’s own desires will be annulled as the child learns that “an Other decides in all sovereignty the order of the world and the laws according to which its own psyche ought to function”. While there is a risk of “the collapse of a future tense” for any child, the risk is much greater for those born into states of exception for whom the sovereign has sought to foreclose subjective possibilities.

Dispossession: Effects of severance of genealogical filiations and social links
It is hard to miss precarity writ large in the lives of children. One need only think of those children hovering between life and death as they seek to make the perilous ocean journey from Turkey or Libya to Greece. There is the searing image of a migrant toddler, face down on a beach in Bodrum, Turkey, and an equally harrowing image of a father and daughter drowned in the Rio Grande. Anthropologists and political scientists have characterized such outcast persons as disposable, as rubbish, as vermin, as living in a state of exception or bare life or social death. In Dispossession, Athena Athanasiou and Judith Butler focus particularly on “processes and ideologies by which persons are disowned and abjected by normative and normalizing powers” (2013, p. 1). Both in the colonial order and in the contemporary neoliberal social order, they note, subjectivity for the privileged is brought about by desubjectifying their Others, “rendering them usable, employable, but then eventually into waste matter” through systems that normalize privilege for some and sanction precarity for others. Sovereign authority sets out to rupture genealogical filiations and erase ancestral and historical memory to produce paralyzing self-abasement and ideological interpellation. The result is a subjectivity severed from history and characterized by melancholy. 

In Colonial trauma, Karima Lazali, explores the effects of a brutal colonial history as well as continuing suffering under a fundamentalist Islamic regime on subjectivity of contemporary Algerians. Lazali illustrates the catastrophic effects of such occlusions, describing the emotional constriction and foreclosed imagination manifested by her indigenous Algerian patients. The core of the wound to subjectivity, Lazali notes, is a lack of a sense of belonging that is rooted in a severance from genealogical histories. Subjected to totalizing ideology, language erasure, religious fundamentalism, and political authoritarianism, Algerians have internalized amnesia and a sense of absoluteness that chokes their capacity for meaning.  

Agentic social engagement calls for an impulse toward mutuality, toward “becoming-with-one-another” and “beside ourselves” (p. 71) that allows us to absorb new alterities and expand our subjective possibilities. As Butler and Athanasiou note, what is at issue here is “the vexed thematics of agency”: Can the apparatus of recognition and normalization ever be disorganized so that individuals might experience a “performative proclamation of a self that has been undone and redone”? Or, as they also suggest, can we ever overcome “the cunning of recognition” ? This is, of course, a pedagogical question, immortalized, as Butler and Athanasiou note, in Fanon’s plea: “O, my body, make of me always a man who questions”. Can we, then, imagine pedagogical systems or a therapeutic milieu that would enable children to begin to give an account of themselves (cf., Butler), in ways that would allow them to begin to deconstruct the systems of recognizability embedded in the familial, cultural, and political matrices within which they are embedded, and indeed from which they are constituted? The potential of moving children from mere existence or subservience to ethical relationality and agentic possibility suggests that we should pursue this question with some urgency.

[1] Adapted from my chapter “Negotiating agency in the formation of subjectivity: The child, the parental Other and the sovereign Other”. In O'Loughlin, M., Owens, C. & Rothschild, L. (Eds). (2023). Precarities of 21st century childhoods: Critical explorations of time(s), place(s), and identities. Lexington Books. Complete chapter available on request from author: [email protected].

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