- “I Won’t Grow up”
Kathryn Bond Stockton, in her daring and often dazzling new book, The Queer Child(2009), not only expands upon but reconceives what it means to theorize children’s sexualities, the temporality of childhood, and the question of children’s erotic and economic agency. Building upon the work of James Kincaid, Lee Edelman, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, whose groundbreaking “How to Bring Your Kids Up Gay: The War on Effeminate Boys” (1993) perhaps inaugurates this inquiry, Stockton posits a set of tropes or truisms about Anglo-American queer children in the last century that no doubt will reorient any work on the subject in literary studies and beyond. In so doing, she posits fiction as a privileged site for such explorations, arguing that because queer children are “not a matter of historian’s writings or of the general public’s belief . . ., the silences [surrounding them are] broken and broken almost only—by fictional forms. Fictions literally offer the forms that certain broodings on children might take” (2). Such a stance, supported, albeit briefly, through a sketch of the conceptual limits of historical work on the emergence of childhood in Anglo-America in the last hundred years, reiterates implicitly the power of fiction (and film), one might even say the fictional, as a cultural force.
Aesthetic representations occupy this privileged position, Stockton [End Page 331]argues, because of their different relation to temporality. Fiction enables challenges to conventional notions of time, which, she illustrates, is imagined as moving vertically. This conventional notion of time is instantiated most literally in the requirement that children “grow up” and achieve maturity most fully through heteronormative marriage and reproduction. In stalling, twisting, stretching time, Stockton claims fiction allows for “growing sideways,” movement through metaphor, the “spreading” of associations. As she notes, “Overall, I want to prick (deflate, or just delay) the vertical, forward-motion metaphor of growing up, and do so by exploring the many kinds of sideways growth depicted by twentieth-century texts” (11). She invokes Edelman’s criticisms of conventional notions of history as a linear assimilation of complexity into difference-denying fantasies of origin, identity, and periodization, but rejects his call to ignore history tout court.Instead, Stockton, through her discussion of the temporal queerness of childhood, proposes another version of it, arguing for history as just spread, a kind of accumulation that changes how we view sequence but has no real beginning or end: in a nod to Gertrude Stein, she writes, “History will just keep getting fatter” (39).
Stockton, in her claims for this queer time, instantiates, to borrow terms from Sedgwick’s taxonomy, both universalizing and minoritizing versions of the queer child. On the one hand, all children are queer in the sense that they are “broadly strange” (3), simultaneously always already andnot yet straight, due to the invention of childhood as a period of sexual innocence (which ironically, in a Foucauldian twist, Stockton demonstrates, reveals the underlying cultural fear of an inherent childhood sexual perversity from which children must be protected). On the other hand, she posits the quasi-minoritizing figure of the “ghostly gay child (emblem and icon of children’s queerness)” (3). This figure represents a host of key associations: first, there is the notion of ghostly as semi-invisible, a metaphor for the “hazy” and “shadowed” lives of all children, which at base are fundamentally unavailable to adults: “The child is precisely who we are not and, in fact, never were. It is the act of adults looking back” (5). Completely unknowable, except through unreliable memory, these children, Stockton asserts, should not be abandoned to absolute otherness, but be reimagined through examinations of how they are figured centrally through fantasy and/as fiction. Whether any of what she argues thus applies to “real” children appears to be less interesting to her and in fact, in her account, almost necessarily impossible to determine. To some readers, especially those invested in making claims about the larger...