- Children's Culture, Children's Studies, and the Ethnographic Imaginary
Within the last decade, and particularly in the last several years, scholars of children's literature have seen exciting new work on "children's culture." New York University Press alone has put out three representative anthologies: The Children's Culture Reader, Generations of Youth: Youth Cultures and History in Twentieth-Century America (both 1998), and Childhood in America (2000). Obviously the term "culture" means many things to many people. Like "discourse" and "ideology," "culture" is at once a problematic and useful term. On the one hand, the culture idea is so generic or universal that it threatens to mean nothing at all, as some scholars have pointed out. Yet that is exactly why we like it. We rely on its vagueness. Its wide range of designation (alongside more specific meanings) allows for the greatest possible expansion of our critical efforts, such that "children's culture," as we are now imagining it, refers to music, film, television, toys, and other material goods, as well as to literature proper. Articles in the above volumes address (among other topics) the history of childhood, child-rearing practices, food and nutrition, interactive technology and cyberspace, sports and athleticism, fan clubs, and beauty pageants. The idea of children's culture allows us to claim greater interdisciplinarity and intellectual freedom.
"Children's studies" is usually articulated along the same lines, appealing directly or indirectly to the conceit of children's culture. The debate about children's studies and its alternate terms-among them "child studies" and "childhood studies"-attests to the very success of an interdisciplinary Zeitgeist. We would not be having this conversation were there not already some consensus about the importance of interdisciplinary, or at least extra-literary, scholarship. Of course, both children's culture (as a domain) and children's studies (as a practice) raise interesting questions for literary scholars. How are we to think about our work these days? To what extent are we, as teachers and students of children's literature, already identifying as something else? How will our relationship to a long-devalued, now revalued form of literature shift in the wake of a more general appreciation of objects and practices long disdained by the defenders of legitimate culture? For so long children's literature wasn't taken seriously, and just as it's being granted greater respect, the academy is turning to cultural and area studies, theory, and "everyday life."1 Will our emergent interest in children's culture be indulged at the expense of the literary tradition we have worked so hard to champion?
No doubt scholars will continue to explore such questions, and I want to make clear my enthusiasm about the shift away from a narrow vision of literature, criticism, and academic life. This is an exciting period, and children's culture and children's studies make possible new projects and perspectives. Even so, I'd like to suggest that as children's culture and children's studies gain popularity, we are not so much venturing into uncharted territory as we are reshaping the academic field to meet current needs. The nomenclature may be different, but our practices are largely the same, not despite differences in the material we study but indeed as is evidenced by those differences. That is, the very shift in focus from literature to culture attests to the staying power and adaptability of analysis as a vocation, and of "culture" as an organizing field. Culture may be a new thematic interest, but it has been there all along in more diffuse form, securing the very place of literature.
I want to sound a cautionary note, not about the decline of literature, but about our current faith in culture, often too utopian and ahistorical. To begin with, the culture idea has been around for a while. And however much we benefit from its fungibility, the culture idea has an intellectual history that we can trace in and around anthropology, cultural studies, and the historiography of English studies. Current formulations of children's studies appeal to the culture idea ideologically and rhetorically but usually without acknowledging that history. At least two dimensions...