Strange, deformed, and piercingly beautiful, the child acrobat Mignon sprang onto the public stage in 1795. No child at all, but a figment of Goethe’s fiction, Mignon appeared and reappeared in countless forms and guises over the next century. The meaning of this compelling creature is at the center of Carolyn Steedman’s book, a brilliant account of how nineteenth-century notions of childhood, like those expressed in the figure of Mignon, gave birth to the modern idea of a self.
During the nineteenth century, a change took place in the way people in Western societies understood themselves—the way they understood the self and how it came into being. Steedman tracks this development through changing attitudes about children and childhood as these appear in literature and law, medicine, science, and social history. Moving from the world of German fiction to that of child acrobats and “street arabs” in nineteenth-century Britain, from the theories of Freud to those of Foucault, she shows how the individual and personal history that a child embodied came to represent human “insideness.” Particularly important for understanding this change is the part that Freudian psychoanalysis played, between 1900 and 1920, in summarizing and reformulating the Victorian idea that the core of an individual’s psychic identity was his or her own lost past, or childhood.
Using the perspectives of social and cultural history, and the history of psychology and physiology, Strange Dislocations traces a search for the self, for a past that is lost and gone, and the ways in which, over the last hundred years, the lost vision has come to assume the form of a child.
Strange Dislocations illuminates several intriguing byways of Victorian popular culture. It also casts some provocative light on twentieth-century thinking. Ms. Steedman’s most interesting pages discuss how Sigmund Freud (a Victorian, after all) drew on contemporary notions of childhood, littleness, and loss in constructing his view of the unconscious, ‘the child at the heart of the theory,’ as well as at the heart of the psychoanalytic body.
Carolyn Steedman’s ambitious study maps literary, scientific, and social discourses of the nineteenth century that used the figure of the child to express the interior self… Strange Dislocations is an exciting and engaging book in its range, its methodology, and its subject matter. Its explorations of the psychic investments adults have in figures of the child, particularly the vulnerable girl-child at once graceful and inarticulate, provide valuable insights for those who wish to understand how nineteenth-century writers understood the child and themselves in relation to the child. Its depiction of historiography and psychoanalysis as methodologically similar shows admirable self-awareness… [This book] is an important part of an ongoing debate about the best ways to analyze hegemony on the behalf of the historically voiceless.
This is a remarkable book. It is both intellectually ambitious and subtly, ingeniously written…and I am frankly enamored of the central drive of the book which is to somehow move beyond words, to argue the historical, extra-linguistic reality of the phenomenon of the Mignon child-figure, of the movement through an idea of childhood to the development of the whole modern assumption of personal identity.
Through her analysis, a very specific pattern emerges, one that describes a troubled relationship between adulthood and its past, between the voyeuristic gaze and projection of its desires…the subject, performing child and the question of interiority, was fascinating for the nineteenth century, and it still is for us today.
This remarkable book roams creatively across the borderlands of normal history. By tracking images of the child and understandings of childhood through the nineteenth century, Carolyn Steedman not only builds an original argument about modern constructions of the self, of history, and of the forms of social cognition, but opens up a rich landscape of social, cultural, and intellectual analysis. Strange Dislocations is the latest work of a rare and outstanding historian.
- 254 pages
- 6 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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