Wednesday, 4 December 2013

ABC blog: L

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L is for Lacan. Like Freud and Jung, Lacan is not a literary theorists, so his ideas should be applied to literary studies with caution. While Freud claims that all human problems are connected with sexual frustration, Lacan claims that all human problems are connected with linguistic frustration. At least, this is the bit I find helpful. My principle, when I use a theory, is to see what can be helpful for my particular purpose. Many children's literature scholars have picked up Lacan's concept of the mirror stage, the point at which a child perceives themselves as a separate subject. Mirror stage, according to Lacan, occurs at the age of about eighteen months. I cannot see what one can do with it in discussing children's literature besides noting the abundant scenes in which a girl (and occasionally a boy) looks at themselves in a mirror and stating that the character has for the first time perceived themselves as a subject and therefore was immature before.

Feminist critics have picked up Lacan's idea of Father's Law, but I understand it still less. It is hugely sexist and reductive.

Therefore back to linguistic frustration. What can be inferred from Lacan's developmental model (and what has been elaborated by Julia Kristeva) is that as human beings we move from a pre-verbal to a verbal stage. Lacan calls them something different, and Kristeva's terms add to the confusion, so I'll stay with pre-verbal and verbal. For a picturebook scholar, this is a treasure trove. Images can express something for which words are insufficient, including emotions. But our culture is word-oriented; therefore, Lacan would argue, we are culturally conditioned to move from the non-verbal to verbal (and schoolteachers tell children that they are too old for picturebooks and must read real books). But, Lacan would continue, words are inadequate to convey complex mental states and generally the complexity of the world. Therefore, a person who has abandoned the pre-verbal for the sake of the verbal will inevitably feel frustrated. A way to deal with is to reconcile the two – which is exactly what a picturebook does. Highly oversimplified.

There are scores of children's books in which a child learns to read, write and use structured (adult) discourse and thus loses their pre-verbal imagination and immediacy. Lacan might say that reconciliation is impossible. There will always be a conflict between the pre-verbal and the verbal. Nowhere is it as tangible as in children's books.

It may or may not have to do with cerebral hemispheres.

Contemporary children's and young adult novels incorporate visual elements, including different fonts, into the verbal, to interrogate the dominance of the verbal (I assume that's the point). Where digital books will take us in this respect is unpredictable, but the possibilities are unlimited. 

So L is in the first place for language. 

L is also for love, which is omnipresent in children's literature and implies, according to cognitive criticism, that two individual goals, to be happy, are equally valuable for both, to the degree that each is prepared to sacrifice their own happiness for the sake of the other.

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