“After Developmentalism: Toward a Theory of the Human”

By Gabrielle Owen

I want to start with the recognition that the human—along with a closely related concept—the adult—has historically worked as a fundamentally exclusionary category, one that has been used to produce nonwhite and nonnormative subjects as less-than-human. Categories of age are essential to that specific function of the human in that they situate childhood and adolescence as pre-human, not quite human. I think Claudia Castañeda explains it best when she talks about the figure of the child “as a potentiality rather than an actuality,” “an adult in the making,” “a human in incomplete form.”[1] This has enormous consequences for children, who, under this figuration, are not seen as people themselves but as the raw material from which a human might be made, or, fail to be made. This way of thinking about children can be traced back to the nineteenth century alongside a profound epistemological shift Foucault calls “historicity,” Maurice Mandelbaum calls “historicism,” and Valerie Walkerdine calls “developmentalism.”[2] All of these terms evoke an interiorized, narrative process of development through which time, history, and selfhood were conceptualized anew.[3] This temporalizing logic redefined childhood and made the category of adolescence possible in the late nineteenth century, mobilizing biological growth as a metaphor used to naturalize and maintain existing social hierarchies through new secular, scientific frameworks [4]. Though childhood and adolescence purported to be universal stages of human development in scientific discourse, the specifically “modern” form of adolescence that we see emerge in the late nineteenth century is a fundamentally racial category from the start, functioning alongside categorizations of homosexuality as “immature,” or undeveloped, forms of human sexuality.[5] Through the logics of developmentalism, categories of age function as temporal categories in which anyone, but particularly marginalized people or groups, can be relocated along a developmental timeline as regressive, immature, or underdeveloped so that masculinity, heterosexuality, whiteness, and wealth can be maintained as the normative, identifying characteristics of adulthood.

Rethinking childhood—and categories of age more broadly—is urgent and necessary because of the ways these categories continue to naturalize existing social hierarchies today through the logics of developmentalism. How might we think about and relate to the people called children and adolescents beyond the logics of developmentalism? Here I draw from queer notions of time and selfhood to think categories of age differently and more ethically for both the people called children and adolescents as well as for those of us who occupy the marginalized subject positions maintained by developmental logics. To start, if we acknowledge that “human” does not describe a set of inherent qualities belonging to all of us (or any of us), but rather that it is a set of ideals or norms that are reproduced through our discourse but also through moments of social contact with one another, then what I want to propose is a different set of ideals—or, more accurately, I want to abandon the notion that such ideals are fixed characteristics we might know and recognize in advance, and think instead about how we create the human through ethical practices of relationality. If humanness is always something that is granted in the act of recognizing oneself and another person as connected by humanness, then we can retheorize the human as an act of ethical relationality, one that is created through our ethical entanglement with one another.

The psychotherapist Alice Miller writes that “[t]he child has a primary need from the very beginning of her life to be regarded and respected as the person she really is at any given time.” Miller understands this basic requirement to apply even to an infant, whom she sees as being both worthy of regarding and able to respond, even in a non-verbal state of dependency. She writes, “This is beautifully illustrated in one of Donald Winnicott’s images: the mother gazes at the baby in her arms, and the baby gazes at his mother’s face and finds himself therein… provided that the mother is really looking at the unique, small, helpless being and not projecting her own expectations, fears, and plans for the child. In that case, he would not find himself in his mother’s face, but rather the mother’s own projections.”[6] Relating to another person should not be conditional upon someone becoming what you need them to be, but rather should constitute the attempt to see and respond to who is really in front of you at any given moment. This form of exploitation, the use of the child to meet adult needs, is built into the social conception of what a child is in the first place. If such a relation appears “natural” according to the definitional bounds of what a child is, then we must reckon with the degree to which exploitation is foundational to the Western idea of childhood itself.

Castañeda aims to “re-theorize the subject in terms that do not make use of the child as the adult’s pre-subjective other,” which means contending with and accepting unknowing as “the condition of knowledge itself.” She explains: “The theory I am imagining suggests that subjects cannot be known in advance. Instead, knowing comes to apprehend the singularity of all subjects, the complexity of their histories, and the modes of their subjection as these change over time and place.”[7] This theory takes as a given the unknowability of ourselves and others while establishing relational encounters as the site at which a contingent, contextual knowing might take place. Karen Barad writes: “Subjectivity is not a matter of individuality but a relation of responsibility to the other. Crucially, then, the ethical subject is not the disembodied rational subject of traditional ethics but rather an embodied sensibility, which responds to its proximal relationship to the other through a mode of wonderment that is antecedent to consciousness.”[8] The issue is not that children have a stable and originary sense of self to be found if we only would look for it, but rather that our humanity is found in the recognition and validation of our self-making or self-discovery. What this means for the people called children and adolescents is that our gaze is a performative one in which the most ethical practice is to not-know until the moment of contact, to allow each encounter to shift what we think we know, and to acknowledge that the frame of our regard has the potential to validate the reality of what appears before us as human and worthy of regard.

[1] Claudia Castañeda, Figurations: Child, Bodies, Worlds (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002), 1.

[2] Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archeology of the Human Sciences (New York: Vintage, [1971] 1994), xxiii; Maurice Mandelbaum, History, Man, and Reason: A Study in Nineteenth Century Thought (Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 1971), 41; and Valerie Walkerdine, “Beyond Developmentalism?” Theory and Psychology 3.4 (1993), 452-3.

[3] For a thorough examination of this epistemological shift toward interiority in regards to childhood, see Carolyn Steedman, Strange Dislocations: Childhood and the Idea of Human Interiority, 1780-1930 (London: Virago, 1995).

[4] For more on childhood and adolescence as temporal categories, see Jacob Breslow “Adolescent Citizenship, or Temporality and the Negation of Black Childhood in Two Eras.” American Quarterly 71.2 (2019): 473-94. For more on biological growth as a metaphor implicit in racial hierarchies, see Jules Gill-Peterson, Histories of the Transgender Child (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018), 36-38.

[5] For more on the coproduction of homosexuality and blackness in the nineteenth century, see Siobhan Somerville, Queering the Color Line: Race and the Invention of Homosexuality in American Culture (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000).

[6] Alice Miller, The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self (New York: Basic Books, 1997), 27.

[7] Castañeda, Figurations, 168.

[8] Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), 391.

Gabrielle Owen is an assistant professor of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where she teaches courses in queer theory and children’s and young adult literature. Recent work has appeared in NCS, Lion and the Unicorn, Queer Studies in Media and Popular Culture, and TSQ. The arguments made in this post build on those made in her forthcoming book, A Queer History of Adolescence: Developmental Pasts, Relational Futures (U of Georgia P, 2020).


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