Nat Hurley is Associate Professor of English at the University of Alberta. She is the co-editor, with Steven Bruhm, of Curiouser: On the Queerness of Children (U of Minnesota P, 2004) and editor of a special double issue of ESC: English Studies in Canada on Childhood and Its Discontents (38.3-4, 2012). Her book on the history of the queer novel in American Literature is forthcoming from University of Minnesota press, and she has published articles and book chapters on American literature, children’s literature, and queer theory.
This talk investigates the scenes of the stories we still don’t tell to children about sexuality—but which we nonetheless reveal to them anyway. It explores, in other words, cultural addresses to children that amount to forms of sexuality that exceed the content of cultural texts. For Jean Laplanche, the form that sexuality takes in addresses to children is the form of the “enigmatic signifier”: signifiers that are “simultaneously indissociably enigmatic and sexual, in so far as they are not transparent to themselves, but compromised by the adult’s relation to their own unconscious, by unconscious sexual fantasies set in motion by his relation to the child” (79). The sexual content of the enigmatic signifier (or its lack thereof) is therefore only part of the story: the message’s mode of address as well as the content it represses for itself give life to sexuality as an unconscious form, which children and adults alike encounter in each other.
My talk opens by tracking glimpses of this repressed content in examples of impossible sexual children’s culture (like the Onion’s spoof report on the Mapplethorpe Museum for Children and Bob Staake’s images of “bad” children’s books). I read these scenes symptomatically, as repositories for adult anxiety about sexual culture for children, an anxiety articulated in the form of jokes. I then position these eruptions-into-representation of the sexual unconscious as a complex unmasking of the scene of seduction that is central to Laplanche’s work. I ultimately argue for an understanding of child sexuality tied to the relational, dynamic unconscious of both adults and children in their relationship to each other. Children’s culture might thus be read productively, not only as a portion or projection of adult desire (pace Jacqueline Rose) or a site of “erotic innocence” (James Kincaid), but as enigmatic signifiers that enable us to recognize the force of adults’ refused or repressed desires. Reading texts for children with Jean Laplanche means understanding the ways addresses to children mobilize a psychic model of sexuality that exceeds the seeming sexual content of children’s texts and cultural artifacts to include the dynamic unconscious of enigmatic signifiers at the scene of adult-child relations.