Issues in Childhood Disability Studies: The Age of Anti-Psychoanalysis

Professor Karín Lesnik-Oberstein, Graduate Centre for International Research in Childhood: Literature, Culture, Media (CIRCL), University of Reading, UK

Disabled Childhood Studies Symposium

Organised by the Universities of Glasgow, Ghent, Lancaster, Leeds and


Dates 23 - 24th January 2020

Possible themes

● State of play of field

● New theoretical challenges

● Enabling and emancipating methodologies

● Identifying key issues

● Presence and future

Issues in Childhood Disability Studies: The Age of Anti-Psychoanalysis

All the themes listed above continue – in my view – in relation to childhood disability studies to cluster around a key difficulty, which is the tension around on the one hand striving to see and hear the disabled child for advocacy and liberatory purposes and on the other the effort to resist generalising that child and subjecting it to structures of power (Curran & Runswick-Cole (2014); Tisdall (2011)). In relation to this field of tension, important questions are raised around the constructions of childhood and disability, including vital problems around widely used liberatory and participatory tropes such as ‘development’ (Burman, 2007; 2016),‘voice’, ‘agency’, and the ‘body’ (Lesnik-Oberstein et al, 2011; 2015) which are inflected by considerations of disability and childhood to reveal their inherently normalising and marginalising dynamics: the disabled child that cannot speak, for instance, is then in deficit in not expressing the required ‘voice’ or when not able to ‘act’ to the required standard is then in deficit of the required ‘agency’. Attempts to resolve the field of tension itself, however, remain, it seems to me, trapped within it however keenly the ethical and practical problems around it are felt. Several recent alternative configurations of childhood and/ or disability have not, I would argue, evaded the oppositions that ultimately still rely on known and knowable ‘identities’.

Furthermore, despite the questions already raised around these issues, the ongoing pressures of such demands seem to me only to be increasing in both popular and academic discourses. Significantly, there is a flood of popular and academic work focussing on self-representation and self-support or peer-support through speaking for instance about mental health, as with the mental health charity MIND and the biscuit producer McVitie’s ‘Let’s Talk’ campaign (MIND and McVitie, 2019) or the praise for a group of teenagers in the Cumbrian town of Maryport who could not access mental health services and instead formed a group, ‘We Will’, to support each other and campaign for awareness (Tickell, 2019). It is a commonplace to note that the prevalence of such narratives is due to the ongoing politicaland policy shift away from expensive and intensive professionally trained and supported services to a cheap, de-professionalised and widely dispersed patchwork of self- and peer-support.

I will argue here, however, that the casino-capitalism that is invested in dismantling the welfare state and the liberatory and advocacy concerns of childhood disability studies, while seeming to be at extreme odds to one another, in fact share an advertent or inadvertentcommon reliance on founding assumptions about ‘identities’ as autonomous, visible, coherentand expressive entities and that it is this that holds in place the field of tension of childhood disability studies. McLaughlin and Coleman-Fountain, for instance, offer a rigorous overview of several extant arguments relating to ‘authenticity’ in childhood disability research and offer as an alternative that ‘what we want to argue, [is] that visual techniques, such as those associated with “auteur theory”, offer a particular insight, rather than one that is more authentic for working with children and young people.’ They are at pains to acknowledge that it is

important to retain an appreciation of the ‘socialness’ of anyone’s ability to visually capture their interpretation of their life. Such individual acts are located within the broader visual and social imaginaries already present in the world. (McLaughlin and Coleman-Fountain, 2019: 366)

Yet, the implementation of these arguments then nevertheless turns out to rest on claims that:

It is therefore interesting to explore how disabled young people choose to represent themselves and to examine with them the relationship between their selected images and broader available representations of disability. For example, as they move through adolescence, what are the images around them, and how do they influence how they represent their identity and position in the world? (McLaughlin and Coleman-Fountain, 2019: 367)

‘Disabled young people’ are here already known after all as such, including to be able to ‘choose to represent themselves’ and there is a known distinction too between ‘their selected images’ and those that are ‘broader available representations’. The perspective here also knows that the ‘images’ are ‘around them’ and that ‘they’ are ‘influence[d]’ by ‘them’, therefore sustaining already known differences between the ‘social’, the ‘image’ and the ‘them’ who ‘choose to represent themselves’. Judith Butler considers these difficulties of this(advertent or inadvertent) retrieval of after all already known differences in the light of gender specifically:

On the surface it appears that phenomenology shares with feminist analysis a commitment to grounding theory in lived experience […] and yet the feminist claim that the personal is political suggests, in part, that subjective experience is not only structured by existing political arrangements, but effects and structures those arrangements in turn. Feminist theory has sought to understand the way in which systemic or pervasive political and cultural structures are enacted and reproduced through individual acts and practices, and how the analysis of ostensibly personal situations is clarified through situating the issues in a broader and shared cultural context. […] The personal is thus implicitly political inasmuch as it is conditioned by shared social structures, but the personal has also been immunized against political challenge to the extent that public/ private distinctions endure. (Butler, 1988: 522-3).

Butler’s analysis here of the ‘immunization’ of ‘the personal against political challenge’, seems to me to be implicated in the ongoing pressures in both popular and academic discourses to revert to ‘lived experience’ and ‘self-representation’ despite the significant and long-standing discussion of the problems with such claims. Moreover, this reliance in turn is based on a common (again, advertent or inadvertent) inherently anti-psychoanalytic position, where the questions psychoanalysis has long since raised around the constitutions of childhood, disability, the body, voice, agency and expression, remain either unknown or forgotten or, most often, actively resisted. Key here is the work on childhood studies of Jacqueline Rose (1984), Carolyn Steedman, Cathy Urwin and Valerie Walkerdine (1985; 1990) and Erica Burman (2007; 2016 [1994]), where psychoanalysis is read radically to question childhood and ‘representation’, instead reading it as always claimed in a perspective from elsewhere. As Sigmund Freud wrote in the preface to the fourth edition of his ‘Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality’: ‘If mankind had been able to learn from a direct observation of children, these three essays could have remained unwritten.’ (1920: 133).

This psychoanalytic way of thinking, when addressed at all, has often been understood as an admission of defeat or as nihilistic: as accepting that the child (or the woman, as in Butler’s arguments, or any identity) will never be sufficiently known or understood. But this understanding is not at all the claim of psychoanalysis as read by Rose, Steedman, Urwin and Walkerdine and Burman (and Butler); instead, psychoanalysis sees itself as an ‘enabling and emancipating methodology’, albeit in very different ways than representational approaches. What is central here is the implication of psychoanalysis in terms of the ‘splitting’ of the rationalist, unitary, wholly conscious subject not just in terms of a questioning of assumptions about the ‘content’ of such a subject, but also in terms of theperspectives of researchers themselves. For the researchers too can no longer assume their own rational, unitary subjectivity in terms of a dualistic split from their object of research. The question of how and why and when researchers ‘see’ or ‘hear’ the child and disability come to the forefront in this kind of work. Literary critic and theorist Shoshana Felmanmakes the same argument with respect to her account of the implications (rather than ‘applications’) of psychoanalysis for reading: Felman includes as an epigram a quote from the French psychoanalyst and theorist Jacques Lacan at the start of her volume Literature and Psychoanalysis. The Question of Reading Otherwise:

This is what analytical discourse is all about: what can be read. What can be read beyond what the subject has been incited to say. […] In analytical discourse, the signifying utterance is given another reading than what it means. (Felman, 1982: no page number)

Lacan here disrupts at once a unitary, intentional author and reader, as well as text as a

separate object of study. As Felman further elaborates:

Literature, by virtue of its ironic force, fundamentally deconstructs the fantasy of authority […] and, for the same reasons, […] psychoanalysis deconstructs the authority of the fantasy – its claim to belief and to power as the sole window through which we behold and perceive reality, as the sole window through which reality can indeed reach our grasp, enter into our consciousness. Psychoanalysis tells us that the fantasy is a fiction, and that consciousness is itself, in a sense, a fantasy-effect. (Felman, 1982: 8)

Psychoanalysis is here the disruption of the dualities of object and subject, of viewer and viewed, and of the real and fantasy and instead pursues the readings of the investments of the perspectives who see or hear the disabled child as such.

Word count: 1479


Burman, Erica (2016, third edition [1994]]), Deconstructing Developmental Psychology. London: Routledge.

Burman, Erica (2007), Developments: Child, Image, Nation. London. Routledge.

Butler, Judith (1988), ‘Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An essay in phenomenology and feminist theory’, Theatre Journal, 40:4, 519-531.

Curran, Tillie & Katherine Runswick-Cole (2014), Disabled Children’s

Childhood Studies: a distinct approach?, Disability & Society, 29:10, 1617-1630, DOI:


Felman, Shoshana (ed.) (1982 [1977]), Literature and Psychoanalysis. The Question of Reading: Otherwise. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Freud, Sigmund (1920), ‘Preface to the Fourth Edition’ in: Sigmund Freud, ‘Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality’ [1905], S.E., vol. VII, London: The Hogarth Press, 123-243.

Lesnik-Oberstein, Karín (ed.) (2011), Children in Culture, Revisited: Further Approaches to Childhood. Houndmills: Palgrave.

Lesnik-Oberstein, Karín (ed.) (2015), Rethinking Disability Practice and Theory: Challenging Essentialism. Houndmills: Palgrave.

McLaughlin, Janice & Edmund Coleman-Fountain (2019), Visual Methods and Voice in Disabled Childhoods Research: troubling narrative authenticity, Qualitative Research, 19(4) 363–381, DOI: 10.1177/1468794118760705

MIND and McVitie, ‘Let’s Talk’ campaign, [last accessed 14-12-2019]

Rose, Jacqueline (1984), The Case of Peter Pan or the Impossibility of Children’s Fiction, London: Macmillan.

Steedman, Carolyn, Cathy Urwin and Valerie Walkerdine (eds) (1985), Language, Gender and Childhood, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Tickell, Louise (2019), Mental Health: The students who helped themselves when help was too slow in coming, The Guardian, Education section, 12-02-2019: (last accessed 14-12-2019].

Tisdall, E. Kay M. (2011), The Challenge and Challenging of Childhood Studies? Learning from disability studies and research with disabled children, [last accessed 14-12-2019]

Walkerdine, Valerie (1990), Schoolgirl Fictions, London: Verso.

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