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Anthropological Quarterly 77.4 (2004) 735-746

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On Being Young

London School of Economics
What is at the center of the narration for me is not the explication of a strange fact but the order that this strange fact develops in itself and around itself: the drawing, the symmetry, the network of images which assemble around it, as in the formation of a crystal.
—Italo Calvino

I want to suggest that there are three key areas of theoretical difficulty: how to theorise children's agency, how to theorise their rights, and how to theorise the nature of the 'child' itself. These are not new theoretical questions. They are all interconnected, and they link to and underpin such diverse domains of enquiry as children and social policy, war trauma and child soldiers, cognitive development, language use, sexuality and labour. Our understanding of what it is to be young is thus rather like Italo Calvino's crystal: formed out of the accretions and sedimentations that this strange fact draws to itself as a function of being part of our narratives. Narratives of what?, you might reasonably ask. Narratives about knowledge, value, risk, and morality, I suggest, and these are all ultimately narratives about culture and the nature of society. [End Page 735]

Children provide us with a philosophical and an emotional conundrum, 'how did we come to be as we are'? In asking this question, we recognise that the way we think about children, about being young is at the basis of our vision and theory of society. For an anthropologist this provides an interesting starting point because it suggests that our theories of society and culture are bound up with our theories of the child, their capacities, behaviour and responsibilities.

On Knowledge

It was Freud, of course, who provided one of the most cogent expressions of this view. Psychoanalysis set itself up as an alternative to Christianity, an alternative theology, and in doing so provided another account of the unacceptable, replacing sin by desire. Freud made much of this in linking sexuality to knowledge through what he called the 'sexual researches of children.' This seeking after knowledge is of a very particular kind according to Freud—the origins of babies, the nature of the parental relationship and the differences between the sexes—but these sexual researches nonetheless form the basis for, and can be seen as paradigmatic of, a quest to understand the mystery of what it is to be human. Freud thought the sexual theories of children false, but said of them: 'Although they go astray in a grotesque fashion, yet each one of them contains a fragment of real truth; and in this they are analogous to the attempts of adults, which are looked at as strokes of genius, at solving the problems of the universe which are too hard for human comprehension' (Freud [1908], 1977a:193).

Freud's larger point here seems to be that knowledge is a sexually inspired project, and that all forms of knowledge seeking, of curiosity and enquiry, are linked to these early, but subsequently repressed, sexual researches. There are many who find this point difficult to understand and even harder to accept—absolutely indigestible—but if true it leaves us in the rather interesting situation of finding our own investigations into the problem of children, of being young, inspired by our own earliest researches. Freud, of course, would have had absolutely no problem with the idea that what we look for in our work on children, and indeed work with, is the child in all of us.

Children then are the model for adults, and not the other way around. Freud extended this idea into his larger theory of sociology in which he suggested that 'Generally speaking, our civilisation is built up on the suppression of instincts,' specifically sexual instincts (Freud [1908], 1985:38). There were [End Page 736] two parts to this theory one connected with the origins of culture, and the other with the origins of society. Freud in using the term civilisation conflated, or interlinked, the two. The relationship of sexuality to culture...


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