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The South Atlantic Quarterly 102.1 (2003) 215-234

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The Afterlife of the Romantic Child:
Rousseau and Kant Meet Deleuze and Guattari

Frances Ferguson

It has so long been recognized that children had a special status in the Romantic period that to say so is perhaps merely to rehearse a cliché. A host of examples could be cited to illustrate this uncontroversial claim: Wordsworth's use of children as speakers in his poems from Lyrical Ballads; Anna Laetitia Barbauld's efforts to develop age-coordinated readers for children; and Thomas Day's sense that children justified Christianity, which had early found a use for them. 1 The Romantics, we have come to see, created a new economy of respect by seeing children as different from adults. No longer were they deficient adults. Now they were, finally, completely adequate children. Yet if Wordsworth, Barbauld, and Day maintained that children had their own capacities and ways of thinking, their respect for children as children also confronted an obvious problem—that one could value the traits of children only by establishing a way of singling them out and separating them off from other, older people.

Rousseau had preceded Wordsworth, Barbauld, Day, and a host of others in this double move. On the one hand, he had sequestered his [End Page 215] imaginary pupil Emile to cut him off from a world of adult influence, the better to identify and show off his capacities. On the other hand, this act of acknowledging the child's age-specific capacities was part of an educational project that rested on constant age-segregation of children. If Emile's tutor was both solicitous and admiring (albeit in his Spartan fashion), he was also leading the child along a very distinctly identified track. Rousseau's attempts to see children and to see them clearly also involved segmenting the time of their lives into a series of stages and treating those stages as if they could be coherently described and predicted. The time of childhood, that is, became a space, and children came to have their own institutions and live in a world apart from adults. 2

To put this point another way, Rousseau's acknowledgment of childhood in itself was no simple act of perception; it also involved the practical development of a pedagogy that would usher children through a series of developmental stages and the practical sequestration of children from most adults. For if Rousseau argued against sending children to wet nurses and thus separating them from their mothers, it was inevitable, once one escaped the confines of the world of the Emile itself, that children would, on any extension of his scheme, spend ever-increasing amounts of time with one another. A version of the Malthusian problem of population emerged as soon as one confronted education on the Rousseauvian plan. While there might be enough of the necessaries of life to support a substantial number of people, education as Rousseau conceived it introduced even the most Spartan education as a new kind of need. Each child needed, in order to fulfill the distinctive capacity that might lie unacknowledged and thus undeveloped, the undivided attention of an adult—a tutor to direct him or her to the age of independence and marriage. Any couple having more than two children would necessarily have to rely on other adults to remain childless and lavish their attentions on other people's children. Were the adult labor pool to be inadequate to the educational task, children would necessarily be recruited to become both consumers and producers of attention.

The controversial aspect of Rousseau's scheme, as William Blake was quick to see, was that it went well past the traditional bounds of the empiricist project of expecting children to come to agreement with adults about how objects existed in the world. Rather, Rousseau's educational plan proposed to jettison the notion that education might involve agreement on names and the concepts that they betokened, and to proceed directly to [End Page 216] an organization of the conditions...


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pp. 215-234
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Archived 2004
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