- The Transnational Politics of Childhood and the Neoliberal Order
Historians and other scholars of childhood have long lamented the marginality and perceived “softness” of their subfield.1 Though Philippe Ariès published his foundational Centuries of Childhood over fifty years ago, only recently has scholarly work on children and youth generated “serious” cachet in the academy.2 The present essay concerns five works at the forefront of this ascendant body of scholarship. Together they demonstrate, in discrete yet overlapping ways, the ambitious transnationality of childhood studies and how examinations of youth get at questions of politics and symbol making.
All these studies focus on postwar politics—namely, the ideological struggles of the Cold War and the culture wars, often waged on the terrain of childhood. Margaret Peacock explores figurations of both Soviet and American [End Page 457] children in the Cold War period. Anita Casavantes Bradford looks at symbolic representations of the Cuban child in Havana and Miami at the nadir of US–Cuba relations. Laura Briggs assesses the political implications of transracial and transnational child adoptions since 1945. Eleana Kim ruminates on the liminal childhoods of Korean adoptees and their formation of an “adoptee counterpublic,” within which different visions of adoptive childhood are articulated. Margaret Jacobs examines the phenomenon of Indigenous child removal in the United States, Canada, and Australia since 1945. All these battles involving children hinged on material circumstances—that is, systems of economic provision—and the cultural models of citizenship with which they corresponded. Young people played central roles in these models, doing vital symbolic work for disparate political camps and helping form the contours of the Cold War and neoliberal worlds.
Only Casavantes Bradford and Peacock had the explicit goals of writing histories of childhood and youth; the other three books set out to intervene in literatures other than that of childhood studies. Briggs, Jacobs, and Kim do not (strictly speaking) fall under the expanding umbrella of childhood studies. Briggs has produced a fine study of racial, gendered, and sexual politics in the postwar United States, taking transracial and transnational adoption as registers for wider political debates. By harnessing autoethnographic methods and reflecting on her own encounters with adoption, she also reveals the imprint that such matters leave on the parties involved. In Adopted Territory, Jacobs sees adoption as a battleground on which Indigenous dispossession has been enacted, sometimes as a cruel complement to coercive government policies. Like those of Briggs and Jacobs, Kim’s book also centers on the power dynamics embedded in adoption practices but concentrates on how Korean adoptees, as adults, have come to terms with such practices. Yet even if Casavantes Bradford and Peacock might be the only ones who envisage themselves as scholars of childhood studies, each of these monographs deepens our conceptualization and theorization of childhood as an analytical category. To that end, two strands run through these books and pose salient questions for our understanding of youth in transnational context across the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.
First, the works cast light on identity and “the politics of belonging,” to reappropriate Kim’s phrase. What does a transracial and transnational adoption mean for the racial and national identities of the adoptee? At what point, if ever, does an “orphan” stop being an “orphan”? How does free market fundamentalism...