What is a Child?: Childhood, Psychoanalysis, and Discourse

Author(s) : Michael Gerard Plastow

What is a Child?: Childhood, Psychoanalysis, and Discourse

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Childhood is defined in different preconceived manners by different discourses. Thus the categories defined by age such as infant, child, adolescent and so on, are to some extent arbitrary divisions that are subject to the evolution in clinical, societal, ideological and political discourses. Within psychoanalysis there has been a conflation of childhood construed through the retrospective memories of adults, and childhood as seen through the perspective of infant observations. In What is a Child? Michael Gerard Plastow argues that the place of the child as subject in the fullest sense has been neglected through these tendencies, and that such confusion has marked the history of the psychoanalysis of the child itself, which began as a family affair.

In this book, Plastow endeavours to tease out the different notions of time and history that are implicit in the history of child psychoanalysis and in the clinical approach to childhood. He closely examines the beginnings of psychoanalysis of the child, particularly emphasising the contributions of Hermine Hug-Hellmuth. It was she who emphasised the impossibility for parents to analyse their own children. This contribution also enabled her to theorize the place of the parents in relation to the analysis of a child. The author also examines the history of the discourses that have determined how we consider childhood and thus conceive of the child. In his conlcusion, Plastow returns to the questions of the child, the parents, and the symptom, as well as the notion of ‘cause’, in order to examine the implications of this study for clinical practice with children and their families.

Reviews and Endorsements

‘Far from rehearsing the tired trope of “the child within”, Michael Gerard Plastow uses his clinical insights to make us see the child outside and in front of us: the child as other, as a historical construction, and as sexualised singularity. Lifting the hood from childhood, this superb book makes the child appear in all his or her radical marginality.’
— Patricia Gherovici, psychoanalyst and author

‘To encounter a child we must be open to surprises. In this book, we move from surprise to surprise, reading and thinking with Freud, Rousseau, Condillac, Lacan, Foucault, and so on. The purpose of the book is not to build a whole science of the child, but to encounter the "hole" in the history, a history that claims to encompass the child. The emergence of the child as a subject is the moment of a fall from Paradise. The child is then stained by “original sin”; in other words, the questions of sex and death. The child is by no means a natural concept, but rather, a fact of discourse. This book will not just appeal to those working with children, but to anyone with an interest in psychoanalysis. Michael Gerard Plastow pursues his argument concisely and rigorously, without unnecessary recourse to jargon or technical terms. Through the clarity of his thinking and the quality of his writing, this book is accessible to all those in related fi elds of practice.’
— Christian Fierens, psychoanalyst

‘In this remarkable book, Michael Gerard Plastow convokes us to resolve an enigma: what is a child? Those who might expect an answer in general terms will be disappointed, as, for the author, it is not a question of examining a generalisation, but rather each child taken in his or her singularity. In effect, there is a radical difference between the child as spoken by those around it, and the discourse of each child. The strength of this work lies in the clinical practice of the author that emerges from each page: step by step, we follow him through the turpitudes of this “other”, the child who very fortunately escapes from being objectified by the world that surrounds him, and in particular by a certain developmental psychology. Plastow invites us to understand to what extent the "illegitimacy" of infantile sexuality situated the child, from the outset, as "illegitimate", a stranger to his own field, even if a certain theory of "stages" might have wanted to reclaim a place for him. The merit of this work is to restore to the child his place as “sexual subject” and, more broadly, as subject. Finally, we follow the author through the different versions of the child’s symptom that are considered here as being essentially tied to the family dynamic.’
— Robert Lévy, psychoanalyst

About the Author(s)

Michael Gerard Plastow is a psychoanalyst working in private practice in Melbourne. He is an analyst of the Freudian School of Melbourne School of Lacanian Psychoanalysis. He also practises in the public sector as a child psychiatrist at the Alfred Child and Youth Mental Health Service where he leads a multi-disciplinary team. Over a number of years he has convened a seminar on Psychoanalysis and the Child with Tine Nørregaard, also a psychoanalyst in The Freudian School of Melbourne. This collaboration has given rise to the writing of the book entitled What is a Child?: Childhood, Psychoanalysis, and Discourse.

Michael has published extensively in the psychoanalytic, psychiatric, and academic literature, and frequently presents his work at colloquia and conferences in Australia, Europe, and Latin America. He has a particular interest in the question of translation in psychoanalysis and has translated a number of papers into English from French, Spanish, and Portuguese. His translation into English of Jacques Lacan’s seminar The Knowledge of the Psychoanalyst was published in 2013 as a bilingual edition by the Association Lacanienne Internationale.

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