Thursday, November 09, 2006


Judith Butler, drawing on Foucault, asserts that "the social dimension of normativity preceeds and conditions any dyadic exchange, even though it seems that we make contact with that sphere of normativity precisely in the context of such proximate exchanges" (Giving an Account of Oneself, pp. 23-24). I think this is precisely wrong. I have taken note of some phenomena of early childhood development and also nonhuman primate social cognition (for example Joint Attention) in order to better understand this problem. If the sphere of normativity has any effect on the development of the human infant, it is only insofar as it conditions dyadic relations with primary care-givers. These dyadic relations however are the primary reality of the infant, regardless of which set of social norms acts to condition them. They do not simply mediate, they construct. Butler's subject makes me think of a feral child who by some twist of magic is able to speak a language and operate within a sphere of social norms. Real life isn't like that.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 10:59 AM.


Blogger Sinthome said...

Fido, Love your blog! When you suggest that Butler treats the child as if it must already have language and operate within the sphere of social norms, is this the only possibility? Suppose we imagine a hypothetical scenerio in which an adult black man from another country where there is no racial prejudice visits a highly racist region of the United States. This man is unfamiliar with the norms and mores governing U.S. culture and is therefore unable to act according to those norms. Nonetheless, those U.S. citizens immediately code him according to these norms-- despite being a foreigner --and behave towards him accordingly. Despite the fact that he has no idea as to what's going on, these interactions begin to have an individuating effect and his behavior begins to change in response to how others behave towards him. Isn't this what occurs between child and caregiver... Leading some Lacanians to refer to the caregiver as the mOther, as agent of the symbolic order? That is, despite the fact that the infant is ignorant of these symbolic institutions, the child is nonetheless developmentally individuated within this medium.

November 09, 2006 5:57 PM  
Blogger Fido the Yak said...

I would agree the child is developmentally individuated within this medium, however the question of ignorance (and agency) is no small matter. Leaving aside consideration of immigrant experience (because the immigrant is clearly aware of how he or she is being percieved) what does it matter to an infant whether it's dressed in pink or blue for instance? Adults will act certain ways toward an infant based on its gender, but how far does that go? I'm not sure it matters developmentally until the infant is capable of engaging in more meaningful interaction. Is crying gendered in infancy? What about burping? Well, I don't really know what the research says about the emergence of gender identity in early childhood. I'll make a note to check that out the next time I'm at the library.

As for mOther as the agent of the symbolic order, I just don't see prioritizing the symbolic order ahead of the dyad, because the only way for the child to ever reach the symbolic order is through dyadic relations with primary care-givers. I think these relations must be meaningful in themselves, and not merely as contingent upon the symbolic order. Perhaps it's a little chicken and egg--I haven't taken sides in that one either.

Love your blog too, Sinthome. Glad you stopped by.

November 10, 2006 2:06 PM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

These are good points. I guess what I'm getting at-- in my Lacanianism --is that developmentally the structuration of desire comes from the Other, not from myself. That is, as an infant I have no idea what it is that I desire as I've not yet formed an associative web between my various impressions or experiences. If, for instance, I feel hunger, this discomfort is not yet a sign standing for hunger, but is just a discomfort that causes me to cry. The caregiver *intreprets* this cry, thereby giving it some signification. Perhaps the caregiver holds me, gives me a bottle, wraps me in a blanket, etc. These various *interpretations* might very well have nothing to do with the real origin of my discomfort, but they come to get connected to my various discomforts. For instance, it's plausable to suggest that some of those who eat when their anxious as doing so because they were always fed whenever they cried out. Eating becomes the universal response to any distressing state; but this link was formed as a result of the Other's interpretation of those cries, not my own interpretations. I guess my thesis would be that the development of norms and meanings doesn't proceed from the inside out, but the outside (Other) in.

November 10, 2006 2:51 PM  
Blogger Fido the Yak said...

Your thesis sounds plausible at first glance. However, I think there's more negotiation involved in caring for an infant than your thesis would allow. Feeding isn't always the answer to a crying baby. Sometimes you rock the baby, sometimes you sing to it, touch it, burp it, change its nappies, take it to the doctor, whatever. You care about the baby's happiness, and this care makes you attentive--even in your sleep. Attentiveness does not make the infant an equal partner, but it does allow for its voice to be recognized.

November 11, 2006 6:07 PM  

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