- The Victorian Childhood of Manga:Toward a Queer Theory of the Child in Toboso Yana's Kuroshitsuji
He seems to be a very mature little fellow.-Frances Hodgson Burnett, Little Lord Fauntleroy (1886)1
The turn taken was away from a good boy's book-the "escape" was left on their hands.-Henry James, "The Pupil" (1891)2
I start this essay from the premise that we ought to read a contemporary young adult Japanese manga (comics) series about a Faustian contract between a boy and his demon butler, Toboso Yana's Kuroshitsuji (Black Butler),3 as a literary descendant of Henry James's "The Pupil," a fin-de-siècle tale of a doomed love relationship between a tutor and his pupil. I suggest, moreover, that we ought to read them both as queer texts that self-consciously play with the sentimental cultural and literary tropes of the child-as exemplified in works like Frances Hodgson Burnett's 1886 saccharine bestseller Little Lord Fauntleroy-in order to foster in their readers a perverse resistance to, in Lee Edelman's words, "the Ponzi scheme of reproductive futurism."4 Edelman has drawn fire for creating an overly rigid binary opposition between, on the one hand, future-oriented politics centering on the figure of the child, which he reads as inescapably heteronormative and fantasy driven, and, on the other hand, a queer rejection of that fantasy, which he links to the death drive. However, I contend not only that his model provides a useful framework for reading a darkly nihilistic text like Kuroshitsuji, but that the manga itself offers a rebuttal of sorts to Edelman's "utopian" critics, like José Muñoz and Tim Dean (whose rejection of Edelman's rejection of futurism I discuss in more [End Page 1] detail presently).5 Indeed, Kuroshitsuji is a sophisticated meditation on the figure of the child and the social order that is maintained through that figural child's fetishization, sentimentalization, and even eroticization.
The manga explores our desires for a paradoxically knowing-innocent child: a being who can, impossibly, embody the potentiality of a future, not-yet-realized social order and also give its full consent to that suppositious future, maintaining both childish purity (ignorance) and mature selfhood (knowingness). I argue, moreover, that Kuroshitsuji does so with self-conscious reference to the late-nineteenth-century Victorian (1837-1901) British and Meiji (1868-1912) Japanese cultural encounter, in which the child featured prominently in a shared, and vexed, discourse about the individual's relation to the social order, particularly as figured through the social contract. Not only does the manga invite a critical reading of this historical trajectory in the production of the child, but it maintains a self-referential awareness of reading, of the power of narrative investments, one might say, in doing the work of that cultural production.
My analysis of Kuroshitsuji starts with a couple of premises that intersect with queer theory, childhood studies, and literary studies. First, following a well-established, if not uncontested, tradition in scholarship over the last several decades, it assumes that queer theory has a lot to say about the child and, conversely, that the child has a lot to say back to queer theory. In other words, I respond to Kenneth Kidd's recent challenge to theorists to "unsettle what we claim to know about children's literature" by asking "What if we were to think of children's literature not simply as a field of literature but also as a theoretical site in its own right?"6 I argue that Kuroshitsuji does indeed offer a sort of theoretical apparatus for reading its own deployment of the knowing-innocent child. Second, following from the landmark work of critics like Jacqueline Rose, James Kincaid, and, more recently, Katherine Bond Stockton and Marah Gubar, I assume that in our contemporary fraught relationship to the child we are the inheritors of nineteenth-century discourses and structures of feeling. Or, as Kincaid puts it in Erotic Innocence (1998), "[O]ur culture has enthusiastically sexualized the child while denying just as enthusiastically that it was doing any such thing," and in so doing has engaged in...