Are Children Still The Future?

Dominic DeanMMUf

Chair/respondent: Pam Thurschwell (Reader, Sussex)

In his landmark 2004 work, No Future, Lee Edelman argued that mainstream politics uses the image of the child to promote a futurism that forecloses any possibility of radical change. For Edelman, it was axiomatic that a dominant neoliberal politics demands allegiance to the future – and the child – as a coercive, universalist morality. Can this premise still be assumed?

During the 2010s, intergenerational conflict has become a defining theme of political life, with accusations of an older generation deliberating rejecting the image of the child (and perhaps of neoliberal futurism) alongside catastrophic climate change, migration crises, economic jeopardy and new waves of queer (particularly Trans) identities conflicting with renewed social conservatism.

As rhetoric of saving the future intensifies in urgency – yet meets with increasingly unapologetic rejection – where does this leave the image (and reality) of the child in literature, culture and politics? Does Edelman’s child as fundamentally conservative trope still hold? And how might the theory and practice of reading evolve to respond to our collapsing and conflicted futures?

This panel, which puts postgraduate and early-career researchers into dialogue with established scholars, will comprise four short and provocative position papers, followed by a 30-minute discussion/Q&A.

Dean’s paper argues that the 2010s have seen international crises, renewed nationalisms, and major institutional scandals, all generating conflicts over responsibility for the child – modernity’s most compelling figure for global responsibilities and their failures. These conflicts seek to re-attribute responsibility for the child between the ‘international community’, the nation(alist) state, and the (educational or other) institution. With reference to Kazuo Ishiguro, Sarah Waters, and Jim Crace, this paper will introduce how contemporary British fiction negotiates these conflicts.

Dominic Dean (REF Manager and Course Tutor, Sussex)
Dominic Dean is an early-career researcher working on children and violence in contemporary fiction, on which he has published in Textual Practice, Commonwealth Literature, and Literature and History. Dom is currently preparing a monograph on killing children in British fiction from Thatcherism to Brexit. Dom works at Sussex, split between teaching and managing the submission to REF2021.

Barnsley’s paper explores the ‘the global child,’ a racialised and gendered figure that often imposes blueprints of ‘good’ children formulated in the Global North onto childhoods in the Global South. This neo-colonial international development requires critical interrogation. However, cultural engagements with childhoods in the Global South maintain the child as a rich imaginative figure, who draws us into proximity with the precarious futures of poor youthful societies in the context of planetary catastrophe and suggests ways of facing up to them. If we are to ‘take issue’, following Rita Felski, with the ubiquitous critical negativity towards the child advocated by Edelman, what kind of postcolonial reading practice is required?

Veronica Barnsley (Lecturer, Sheffield)
Veronica is a lecturer in Contemporary Literature at the University of Sheffield. Her research focuses primarily on childhood and international development. Currently she's fascinated by representations of midwifery and reproductive rights and is leading a public engagement project on cross-cultural birth narratives. She has published articles in Moving Worlds, The Journal of Commonwealth Literature and Journal of Postcolonial Writing and is writing a monograph on the child in global literatures.

Liberatore's paper considers how, following Edelman’s polemic, critics (Bond Stockton 2009; Zaborskis 2015) have argued that the figural Child, far from representing foreclosure of queer futures, has rich potential for being strange to adult ideas of “straight” temporality. Considering the “breaking” voices of child choristers, Liberatore argues against development that would have the body unfold happily in “due time”; for some children, it is delay, not growth, which presents possibilities for thriving. How might the Child as queer (because asynchronous) meet real children’s experiences of being out of time?

Benjamin Liberatore is a Ph.D. student in sociocultural anthropology at Columbia University in New York. His fieldwork concerns choristership in English cathedrals and asks how children are imagined in narratives of continuity or change. Ben’s research interests also include the co-elaboration of gender and age and debates around puberty suspension.

Vardy’s paper explores how the figure of the child functions as a site for debates about contemporary historicity, defined by Jameson as a ‘perception of the present as history.’ Reading Sarah Moss’s Ghost Wall (2018), in which the child embodies both contemporary cycles-of-abuse and experiences of deep time, Vardy argues that the child complicates any neat critical opposition between ‘naturalising’ and ‘denaturalising’ the present.

Christopher Vardy (Lecturer, Manchester)
Christopher Vardy is a lecturer in Contemporary Literature at the University of Manchester. He is writing a book exploring figurations of Thatcherism and the End of History in 21st-century British culture and recently co-edited a special issue of Keywords exploring contemporary conceptions of crisis. He has published articles on materialism and adolescence in British historical fiction and the use of the abused child as a metaphor for historical transformations.

Thurschwell (chair/respondent) has published extensively on children and youth in literature, psychoanalysis, and popular culture.

Fri 11:00 am - 12:15 pm