May 24, 2021
Gabrielle Owen discusses her recently published book, A QUEER HISTORY OF ADOLESCENCE: DEVELOPMENTAL PASTS, RELATIONAL FUTURES, with colleague Timothy Schaffert. This episode is taken from a March 23, 2021 virtual event celebrating the new book, and we'd like to thank Gabrielle and Timothy—as well as colleagues Matt Cohen and Amanda Gailey—for letting us share this recording.
Plainstate: The Podcast, sponsored by the Department of English, is a podcast about the humanities on the Great Plains and beyond featuring interviews, stories, people, and places.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ERIN CHAMBERS, HOST:
Thank you for listening to the Plainstate podcast, a production of the Department of English at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.
Gabrielle Owen is an assistant professor of English at UNL. She is the author of A Queer History of Adolescence: Developmental Pasts, Relational Futures published by University of Georgia Press in December 2020. This episode of Plainstate is taken from a virtual celebration of her book hosted by Timothy Schaffert, Professor of English at UNL and director of our creative writing program.
This was the first in a series of events commemorating 50 years of LGBTQ studies at UNL. Gabrielle is known to her friends and colleagues as Brie, which is how you'll hear her addressed during the interview and discussion. We are very, very grateful to Brie and Timothy, as well as their colleagues who joined the discussion, for letting us share their conversation with you.
I’m glad to have Brie Owen with me today to discuss her new book, A Queer History of Adolescence: Developmental Pasts, Relational Futures, which is just out this fall from the University of Georgia Press. Brie works with me in the English department. Among many other courses, she teaches the LGBTQ literature courses.
This is also part of the conversation that we're going to be having throughout 2021—that we kind of hoped to start in 2020—in celebration of 50 years of LGBTQ studies at UNL, specifically in the English department, which began in 1970. One of the first courses, certainly the first interdisciplinary course and LGBTQ studies, offered to undergraduates—it started here with Louis Crompton. And so we're kind of doing our best to carry all of that forth, and Brie’s work in this area covers a lot of ground. It's scholarship; it’s criticism; it's social sciences; and, as we'll talk a little bit about, there's a certain amount of personal reflection, as well.
So, please welcome Brie Owen. Oh, and also, we'll have a kind of Q&A at the end, so in the meantime, if you think of questions, you can type them in and they'll reach me on the chat, or you can express them yourself when we open things up. But, Brie, let's talk.
Thank you so much, Timothy. It's such an honor to be here and to be part of the event planning for our 50-year anniversary. Thank you so much for organizing this event.
SCHAFFERT: I’m thrilled to have you here. Like I said, the book is historical research; it’s theory; it's queer theory. And maybe you could talk a little bit about—start by talking about the genesis of the book, where it started, where it came from?
OWEN: So, my joke about this, that's not really a joke, is that I am not over my own adolescence and this book is my revenge. It is a joke, but it's also really the truth. So, I started with this question about, like, where did all these negative stereotypes about adolescence come from? Those stereotypes like rebellious, hormonal, oppositional, out of control, or just sort of, like, unable to do things in an ordinary or responsible way. I was very troubled by this. I was an overly responsible, adult teenager, and I’m working backwards in my adulthood. By the time I’m 60, I’m going to live my adolescence to its fullest. But I wanted to know, Where did these ideas come from? So, I did this giant archival project where I looked at 19th-century newspapers and tracked the word adolescence in newspapers. And I was just looking for the context—how did the word appear?—and I was looking for patterns of meaning of usage and I was very surprised to find in the first half of the 19th century all these positive associations or positive usages of the word adolescence I’ll give you some examples: “The joys of adolescence.” “All the gaiety and vigor of adolescence.” “The sunshine of adolescence.” “The strength of adolescence.” And “Vigorous adolescence” was the one that cropped up over and over and over again. I was very surprised to find this, and kept looking for when it shifted, and around 1870 is where I started to find some of the first negative generalizations that were seen to be attached to that word. I found “the temptations of adolescence.” “The absurdities and crudities of adolescence.” “The perpetual state of rabid adolescence.” Those aren't exactly familiar to us today—maybe the “temptations” are—but I started to notice this shift and the book sort of launched… its launch point was, well, why did this happen, right? And then what are its consequences for today?
SCHAFFERT: Well, you talk in the book about the myth of adolescence. Is that what you're talking about here, then, in terms of these terms that tend to be applied, too?
OWEN: Yeah. I mean, myth is a dramatic word, and I’ll just own that. (laughs) But the myth of adolescence is what I use that to refer more to, like, what we take for granted today. I would say that the myth of adolescence has to do with identity formation; that it's a time when we're going to discover conclusively who we are, and then occupy that. And it's implied that it's going to be normative, as well. Adolescence is when you're going to work out all your non-normative tendencies and then arrive at a properly gendered, heterosexual adulthood. And so, the myth of adolescence is that it's a time of upheaval where everything gets tidied and put away until you arrive at that picket fence, and 2.5 kids, and dog, and all of the trappings of normativity. Which, of course—as we know, those things aren't even available to everyone. They are markers of privilege. And then, of course, some people can't, despite their best efforts, occupy them. So I think that the myth of adolescence is that function—that pressure—that I think all of us have felt at some time to change or grow out of the things that that are essential to our experience.
SCHAFFERT: To go back to this this the concept of the adolescent: you refer to the “bad adolescent” versus the “good child” in the last chapter of the book, and I picked this line out because—so, you're talking about Alison Miller and children who were being praised growing up; they eventually become hyper-competent adults, (laughs) in a sense, and yet they report feelings of emptiness and depression in the aftermath of accomplishment. I just have to read your line here: “Perhaps many academics”—since we're speaking to academics here—"perhaps many academics, like, myself see themselves in Miller's description. Certainly, it seems that academia was designed to both soothe and perpetuate such a cycle; anxiously working toward the next rung of achievement, only to find that there are more after it; that one never arrives at the end (laughs) and one is never just enough as they are.” I have no idea what you're talking about. (laughs) That makes sense. But yeah, so I like that idea of academia as the parent; an extension of the parent who's giving and withholding love, essentially.
OWEN: Yeah. That one, hopefully, is not too close to home for everyone in the room. (laughs) It certainly is for me.
Yeah. I mean, all of schooling—not just academia, but all of schooling—the grades, the progression through—when you think you know, in that moment of I’ve done it, and it's like and there's more! or we're gonna do it all over again. And what happens when we start to interpret that progression as meaningful, about who we are as people and our value in this world? Just to contrast: instead of thinking of an achievement-based identity and self-worth, what about things like kindness, or profound relationships? One's ability to care for others? Care for oneself? One's ability to nurture an environment or a community? So there's a different set of—we might evaluate ourselves differently, other than that academic achievement model that I think is not just pervasive in academia; some people call it neoliberal, or that it's capitalist. I talked a little bit about that. It's not just achievement, but also the self as a commodity; the self as a product.
SCHAFFERT: You also talk about—in that chapter and also really throughout the book—the use of the child to meet adult needs. And in this instance, you're talking about the personal relationship between the child and the adult. But then there's also the social level, in terms of how children, and adolescents, and the way we describe them and depict them, then serves our needs in terms of developing programs; and thinking of psychology and all the various methods and modes that adolescents become useful toward.
OWEN: Yeah, some of that, like “use of the child.” In children's literature and in childhood studies, the idea of the child as innocent, or being eroticized or romanticized by adults, has a long history. It's something that people in childhood studies talk about a lot, critique a lot. And one of the things my book does is sort of draw out specific places where that happens, and then how we might not do it.
It has a historical origin. I’m talking about this early 20th-century moment of new institutions, psychology, medicine, all these areas of expertise to care for children that are based on childhood development and a concept of childhood development which, prior to like the mid nineteenth century, childhood development as a thing—that's not the way that children were thought to grow. Development is a very specific kind of– where everything is a process toward something that is better than where you started; an evolutionary, right, or a certain version of evolution also follows that developmental– developmentalism is what I call it in the book, and other people use that term.
So, the child is used to establish institutional expertise in the early 20th century. That “innocent child” is also mobilized for social programs—funding for social programs—in order to get things done. It's also connected to what Lee Edelman talks about, like the “capital C child” as the beneficiary of every political intervention, or the definition of politics itself. Like everything has to be for the children, but the children, of course, that are being evoked are not, like, real live children who are suffering from hunger and poverty and wide scale disenfranchisement. It's, like, “Not those children, they deserve what they get.” Right? It's “No, the future children.” Right. Then, we are also invited as individuals to use our childhood self, our past self, to either dismiss or disavow it, or to use it to sort of, like, make ourselves who we think we're supposed to be in a psychological sense. And what all these different ways of use that happen–
Oh! Alice Miller. When you were citing her– So, she talks about a dynamic where a parent basically has an essentially exploitative relationship with their child, or the child is there to make the parent feel good about themselves; to manage their unstable feelings. And then you have some weird dysfunctional things that happen, where the child exists only to please the parent; make them proud; meet their emotional needs; be their emotional stability; and I sort of make a parallel between that personal use of the child and historical use of the child. What all of these ideas do is, they function as if they are definitions of childhood itself. And what it does is that then, we can't see the people who are children as people, just like adults are people. I say, in my children's lit class, all the time, children are as various in personality and feelings as we are in this room, right? And so, when we start to confine a child into this imaginary, romanticized space—either our memory of ourselves, or our understanding of the children that we work with, or children in general, then we lose touch with that, like, this is a person and not just an idea.
SCHAFFERT: Yeah. I think in one place you refer to as the figure of the child versus the material beings and doings of children. I was also thinking in terms of how that reflects queer identity, too, and gender identity, and how we can choose our pronouns. We can choose how we identify. But that's a different system than who we actually are and how we actually feel at any given moment.
OWEN: Yeah. I am so interested in that tension between the language—the idea, the conceptualization—and then the lived reality—the experience, the phenomenon—and then how we theorize in the space between those two things. And definitely, queer theory, and gender studies work, and trans theory has a lot to say about that tension. I love thinking about those early misunderstandings of Judith Butler's work on gender performativity, where it's like “If gender is performative, then it's not real, so none of it's real,” right? (laughs) And you have all these queer, trans, non-binary people who are, like, “No, my gender is real. It's really essential to my existence, and it's important, and I’ve been fighting right all the work is so that I can be myself.” But that's a misunderstanding of what performativity is, and a misunderstanding of what Butler argues. That understanding, that discourse and language, that concepts shape what we understand is real, doesn't mean that there isn't experiential phenomena that we aim to describe and understand. So, my solution, how I reconcile this tension is that I argue that we are ethically responsible for the knowledge we produce, or reproduce, or reiterate; and that once we understand that we are sort of, like, entangled with each other—entangled with language, with our environment, with the world—that then we're ethically responsible for that language when we think about, well, what does it do? What does this concept do? Is it doing something good? Is it making people more free—making their lives more possible? Right? Or is it oppressive? Is it dehumanizing? Does it make me feel dead inside? Right, (laughs) like you can do it on that big community level, or on that individual level. And maybe– I have also sort of just borrowed this from psychology and psychoanalysis, where it’s like: if we live we need narratives to live, what are our narratives about ourselves and our lives doing? And if they're not doing what we want them to do—if they're hindering our functionality and our happiness—then we need to change them, right, and change them in a way that makes our lives more possible. That recognition doesn't mean that nothing is real, or that our narratives are futile. It means that there's all the more– it's just making what's at stake explicit. And that's what I really aim to do.
SCHAFFERT: Dr. Amanda Gailey has a question for you and would like to get your thoughts. She says, “I’ve been doing a lot of research on the troubled teen industry”—which makes me realize we should have had Amanda interviewing you for this. (laughs). “We did a lot of research on the troubled teen industry, which is a massive, lucrative industry founded exactly on the normativity that you that you've mentioned. I would just like to hear anything Brie has to say about the troubled teen industry.”
OWEN: Yeah. The troubled teen industry. Amanda, are you thinking of, like, all the self-help books? And there's also programs for “troubled teens,” and “at-risk,” right—all that kind of language.
So, I’m still thinking about the complex of residential boarding schools, wilderness programs, that keep morphing from the kind of “scared straight” boot camp programs into—now it's all, like, “therapeutic”—but they're the same abusive programs where some number of kids die every year. And I didn't know—I mean, it's very recent; it's a recent development—I didn't know if you had really poured yourself into that or not. But I just wanted to hear your thoughts on it, if you had it encountered it in any of your work.
OWEN: Yean. I did not do the kind of research that you are probably doing right now about what's going on with that. I did have a cousin that was sent to a boot camp, (laughs) as well as I have a friend who is a grown person now who also did a kind of “troubled teen” program in New York that used a lot of therapeutic techniques, but that also was sort of weird and controlling and codependent. “Culty” I think was the word that she used.
GAILEY: It really did actually originate in a cult. But yes, there's a reason she's saying that.
OWEN: Yeah. And I think that these types of programs can only exist because they're justified by this larger cultural narrative about teenagers as a danger to themselves and a risk to society. And then another weird thing that happens with all that kind of language about teenagers is that teenagers bear the burden of every problem; social problem; family problem. They become the center, the locus of it. Like they must be the origin of it, when no larger circumstantial dynamics—whether they're social or whether we're talking about bullying or homophobia or racism—the kinds of things that teenagers actually deal with—sexual assault, right, any kind of unhealthy or oppressive parental dynamic—it takes all the attention off of anything that's going on around the teenager and makes them the center of the problem. I think we see that repeated in social evocations of that “troubled teen” or “at-risk teen” all the time.
In my chapter four, there’s this guy named Mike Males who did all this research on the state of California, on statistics. He has these books that are, like, here's 10 myths about teenagers, and he looks at all these statistics and data. One of the things he says is that in in the 90s, in California, social services basically invented this narrative in order to get funding for things, and maybe they had good intentions to start. It was like a period of, you know, defunding, and so in order to keep certain things alive, then they were like “we must do it because __!”
One of the consequences he talks about is teen suicide, and teen suicide statistics, and all these claims in the 90s that suicide had gone up—when all the data pointed to the 90s as one of the lowest periods for teen suicide since the 60s, or since the beginning of when they started tracking it. And he says that they used that narrative of at-risk teens in order to fund programs. But then, there's this huge consequence in terms of how teenagers are being perceived. And one of the consequences is that, then, there's no study that is funded on when suicide rates go down. No one is interested in that. And that would be very interesting if we're trying to find solutions or theorize about what's going on. No study gets funding to study why suicide rates go down. It has to be—it can't be—oh, well then, there's no problem there, right? It's like we're not interested in when there's no problem; we're only interested in a constant crisis. So there's a kind of contradictory thing where problems get perpetuated rather than addressed or studied in a meaningful way.
GAILEY: Yeah. Thank you. I really like that idea of– I think you're exactly right about how it's society's problems, and also parental fears about a child not graduating into normativity but graduating into the societal problems (laughs) all being projected just on the kid; like the kid becomes the site and source of those problems, and so they have to be sent away where someone else does the surrogate parenting. Yeah.
OWEN: And it's so weird because it's this over focus. It's an over focus that blames the teenager, but it doesn't actually address their real problems. Which is a weird like paradox, where it's just overfocus, but in a way that erases them as a human being (laughs) with thoughts and feelings. I don't mean to suggest, at all, that teenagers don't struggle with depression, anxiety, abuse, addiction—all of the things that adults also struggle with, right. One of the arguments I make about suicide statistics and, in the end, about this claim of teen suicide is going up—that claim all the time—when I looked at the data, I was like well, when teen suicide goes up, it goes up in every age demographic. So why aren't we talking about it? Why aren't we looking at it as a social problem—looking at a broader picture instead of as a teenager problem, right? “Oh those teenagers we need to save them from themselves,” right, when it's like “Actually, they're living in a terrifying world with no future just like the rest of us, so–“ I’m sorry. I got a little depressing there.
SCHAFFERT: While we're on the subject—while we’re on the depressing subject—I did want to ask if you if you could speculate a little bit, or if you wanted to speculate, about the impact of coping and adolescents staying at home; learning from this confinement that we've been in; and how that's going to influence [things]. I mean, we were talking about this yesterday, and—there is that same kind of conversation about suicide rates around. So, I wonder if your sense is that this is going to inform how society views adolescence going forward, and the role of schooling in children's lives.
OWEN: Yeah. I feel like I should qualify this by saying I do not have teenagers. I have a three and a seven-year-old. But I have a nephew by marriage who's in high school right now, who's very lonely and really struggling in New York, doing online school. And then we've also had our experiences at our house with online school, and just this profound isolation that's happened this year of course like this past year has impacted kids in the same way that has impacted us as adults right and it and I think that one of the one of the results of my argument is to try to conceptualize the experience as sort of one that’s shared and that's not specifically different for kids. The effects of isolation—those are the same. They cause the same loneliness and grief in an adult as a kid. I think that schooling definitely adds a layer of pressure and a different kind of dialogue. Or, the way we talk about kids: I’ve been hearing a lot of things about schooling, and, like, “they're gonna get behind”—“kids are behind.” And I was trying to check myself about this, because this makes me sort of scoff. “Kids are behind.” But I was trying to check myself, so I’m like, well, I have a first grader. Missing some of first grade, it's not gonna be catastrophic. But then, I’m thinking about what I did in high school, too, and I’m like is that even a thing? Is there “behind?” What does that mean, “behind?” Again, it's stuck in this developmentalism logic that you're on a pathway, in a process, where you're going to end up somewhere; and if you skip a step, you're doomed. You're off the path. You’ve regressed. You're either evolving, or you've devolved. And that's not an accurate description of human existence, or even what matters in life. I think it's just really tragic, the pressure that both parents and kids and teenagers have felt to keep up with the status quo under such extraordinary circumstances that have been fraught with fear and grief and uncertainty about the future. I mean, some of us were home and, like, baking and decorating and stuff, so it's hard to be like Well, why do I feel so upset and sad and horrible? And if you can't plan anything ahead—if you can't see a future—that is a devastating condition to live in, where you can't look forward to something; you don't know what's gonna happen. We have family we haven't seen in over a year; to not be able to know when, for my kids, will see their friends next, or see grandma. So there definitely are some specific consequences for children and teenagers about the way we keep talking about schooling and COVID. But one of the solutions to that is sort of grapple with this shared experience; the way that kids experiences are actually similar to adults—the way that they're experiencing the same grief, the same loneliness, the same uncertainty about the future—and then to think about what we do from there.
SCHAFFERT: In your epilogue to the book—which was written, presumably, before the elections and before COVID—you talk about post-truth as a concept and as a term. You apply it to how we talk about LGBTQ issues and identity, and you explore how that's all connected and also repelling. So, could you talk a little bit about that?
OWEN: Yes. This chapter—well, the epilogue—was a little, like, blip. It was written sort of “post-Trump,” but pre-COVID. And I there was this moment where I started thinking about– so, post-truth is this idea that we're living in a world where people can't tell facts from fiction anymore, and it tried to get at this phenomenon of conspiracy theories or misinformation. And it can be a sort of conservative term that the diagnosis of our time as post-truth can be conservative in that it's like nostalgic for a time when truth was “really truth,” right. So, of course, (laughs) queer theory would have a problem with that diagnosis.
But at the same time, I also watched the Trump administration use what appeared to be post-structuralist moves to claim that their reality was really the real one, and to sort of just stir the pot. So I started thinking really seriously—like, I was having an academic crisis where I was like “Is there no use for queer theory anymore? Is queer theory being used for evil? What is the purpose of queer theory, or any kind of post-structuralist theory, in a world where disputing truth claims is, like, something everyone does on a Tuesday just to say they don't like something, right?” I mean, the number of people who think that COVID is not real, or who think the vaccine is dangerous—everything from, you know, “It’s experimental” to “You're getting a 5G tracker implanted in your brain by Bill Gates”—there's a range of skepticism about the vaccine. But it is so devastating. The effects of this distrust, and the difficulty to tell what's true or not, is devastating. And I don't say that as, like, Oh, all those people—all those conspiracy theorists. I’m an academic. trained to evaluate information, and it's hard for me to tell sometimes what's true. And I have information synthesis skills that are not the average person. Like, the average person should be able to trust what their neighbor says they read on the news, or whatever, right? But now we don't even know what the news is. Is the news Twitter? (laughs) Right? Does your mom get her news from Facebook? So, anyway, I am fascinated by the consequences of this post-truth moment or this age of misinformation. And I argue, in that epilogue, that queer theory is not to blame—post-structuralist theory is not to blame—for post-truth. It actually diagnoses post-truth. The thing that queer theory would say is that, yeah, the person with the most money and the most power is the person who can buy the most viral algorithm. That person gets to say what's true. (laughs) They get to control the narrative.
This goes back to earlier when we were talking about Judith Butler and performativity. These theories don't necessarily dismiss that that there is experiential reality. If anything, performativity is this: Karen Barad says “performativity is a contestation of the excessive power given to language to determine what's real.” So that question of some forms of knowledge, or the way we understand things; it is constructed. And if we use a different apparatus—if we use a different point of view—we will see what is “real differently. That doesn't mean there is no reality, right, but that we are then ethically responsible for the knowledge that we produce, and for accounting for the position from which we stand, and the tools that we use.
And so, what I think is the next wave of the work of queer theory is about accounting more fully for those stakes, and that ethical work. I think a lot of theorists are doing this and have been doing this in the last decade, and it goes by many names, but—this accounting for why are we doing what we're doing? What is it for? And, yeah, Donald Trump did not—and his people did not—read queer theory and then get, like, Mwahaha! Like, evil thoughts. They did not read Derrida and then start to politically strategize; (laughs) that did not happen. Instead, I think that theory actually diagnoses the present moment, which only exposes how much knowledge is constructed and produced.
SCHAFFERT: I also wanted to ask you, too—so, as I was saying, there's historical research, there's social sciences, there's criticism, and then the line I read at the beginning about academia. There's also a voice. This reads to me like expression, as well. So if you might talk a little bit about that, too; that the pursuit of scholarship, but at the same time, I guess, as you're invested in the discussion to a large degree. And ot ends up becoming, to some degree, a plea. The book is like a non-ironic A Modest Proposal, you know. It’s about the children, about adolescence, and preserving their safety.
OWEN: Yeah. So, when I was in grad school I’ve been working on this adolescence idea for a very long time. I wrote a master's thesis on young adult literature as this problematic category, and then went into a Ph.D. program with adolescence pitched as my dissertation.
In an early– I was in a class, we were doing that seminar paper presentation, and I’m reading about how adolescence is a social construction. I’m presenting to the class, and my professor, with a twinkle in his eye, was like “Okay, yeah, but so what?” and I was like “Oh, well, because, oh, uh, uh, uh”— you know, it feels very important to me. This is very personal to me. I was like (panicked noises). I was trying to say why, and he kept following up with “Okay, but so what?” It was all in good fun. This was an incredibly formative moment for me about articulating the stakes of my own work.
So, I think coming out of the 90s and reading all the things that are socially constructed, one might get the impression that identifying that something is socially constructed already solves it, or is sort of politically radical in itself; and I think one of the things that we are seeing right now is it absolutely does not. There's an example in my introduction I give, where there's a trend among fundamentalist Christians right now to tell their teenagers that adolescence is a social construction, and therefore, they need not have one. They just should develop from dutiful children to dutiful adults who still parrot the beliefs of their parents, and they should skip all of that individuation in between. And, of course, that is an incredibly oppressive use of that argument that adolescence is socially constructed: to deny children the space for individuation or to question and identify their own beliefs. And I came across it finding all these blogs of basically these, like, 30-year-olds who are like “I’m having to do my individuation now,” as you can't skip it; “It took me till I was 30, because I was so controlled until now, to be like Wait a minute. What do I really believe?”
And I think that we've also seen this with, again, the political discourse in the last four years. Someone saying that something is invented does not necessarily mean it can’t be used for very questionable aims. So, for me, making not just my own personal stakes— like, I have feelings as a person; I do evoke those in the book, occasionally—but also saying “This matters for people's lives.” The kind of critical analysis or cultural analysis I’m doing—why I’m doing it is because I want people's lives to be more possible. So there's also a tension.
One of the reasons I was so emphatic about my stakes, as well, is because there's a kind of kickback against critique happening right now in the academy. You have, like, Rita Felski's The Limits of Critique, and then in there's a few other people. Eve Sedgwick, also, I think was an early forerunner of this moment, where she's with her paranoid reading, like “Why are we doing this?” and she encounters with reparative reading. Sedgwick is just brutal in her scathing callout of academic practices. In the field of children's literature, some big-name people have this sort of resistance to critique, like we shouldn't do that anymore; but what's following in its place can look like a return to that essentializing or romanticizing move, where it's like let's look at books written by children and talk about how amazing they are, as if that's sort of seeing children as people in and of itself. And, of course, I think that's important work. But one of the things I felt sort of cautious about is a reactionary swing back and forth between critique and then essentializing or romanticizing depictions of children in our scholarship. So, my work, instead, tries to reconcile a sort of– how do we do work that has real stakes for real people? for actual children? that acknowledges actual children exist, and their lives matter? And also, that we do that critique for the purpose of making lives better? I feel like gender studies, queer theory, critical race studies—I feel like any activist kind of theory—already knows this and takes this for granted. And this is just making it explicit in a place where it isn't always. That there's real stakes when it comes to actual lives.
SCHAFFERT: Thank you. And Matt has a comment. So, go ahead and unmute yourself, Matt, and speak.
Thanks, Tim. Brie, this is great. I have just a comment and an appreciation– no, a comment and two appreciations. First, I will just say you're on to it when you talk about the post-truth in the Trump regime, because Stephen Miller was an undergrad at Duke while I was there, and he was a political science major, and there's no question that he read post-structuralism. I mean, that stuff's in the curriculum. There's no way he could have avoided it. So, when you when you talk about, in your book, when you model another way of thinking about the relation between these two domains—of representation and of being—it's really powerful, and really needed. It's a really important contribution, I think, at multiple levels. And I just want to say, you know, I had the great, good fortune to see some of the process behind the creation of this book. And I just want to say how much I admire your goals for the book; the way you thought about it as a thing that could do something in the world; as mediating among conversations that don't always– that sometimes don't even happen but should. And so, I just wanted to say how much I admire that quality of the book and, of course, as a habit of yours as a thinker and as a person.
OWEN: Thank you, Matt, so much. That means so much to me.
SCHAFFERT: On that subject, what are you working on, Brie? What's next? Because we can never be satisfied in academia so therefore… (laughs) That was last month’s achievement. Now… what have you done for us lately?
OWEN: Boy, do I wish I’d known about this question. (both laugh) My chair is listening.
Joking aside, yeah. I’m fascinated by this tension between what I’ve started calling “post-truth phenomena” so as to not marry myself to the term post-truth. Post-truth phenomena: I’m not diagnosing it as post-truth, but things we would call post-truth phenomena. And the near and dear methods of post-structuralist theory—near and dear to my heart—like, what does theory do now? What do we do now? I do not have all of the answers to that question for my next book, but I want to have them. Like, I need a year or two to work it out. (laughs) And I feel like the key is this– I want to sort of synthesize all of these different conversations. I think that A Queer History of Adolescence does synthesize conversations in like critical race studies, childhood studies, queer theory, trans studies, all these sort of marginalized groups who have developed theory in order to, like, figure out how to live in the world—how to cope with the world. I think that there's going to be something about– there's tools in the synthesis of all of those fields of study—and again, that aren't always in conversation with one another. There's threads that they have in common. There's places where those real stakes are really explicitly theorized in a way that you don't always find in some of the more high theory kind of places. So, yeah, I want to work on this question of “What do we do now? And what do we do?”
I think that the book we're talking about today gestures towards some of the things that are happening right now, but I think that we have lived through a profound epistemological shift in the way we understand information, knowledge and the self. The sort of unified subjectivity—like the subject that's that of Foucault’s theory, that is disciplined by society and language—that subject formation is not necessary for power to work anymore. To think of oneself as a unified subject that then norms can discipline, like, we are not that anymore. That is not the kids are being taught. That's not the subconscious thing that's happening. Instead, what we see is the self as a set of capacities that are divisible and separate and there to be exploited, and that the self is a commodity; something to be presented and sold. Just a simple example of this would be influencers. Or, instead, the use of social media or apps to connect and enhance one's human connections; that they have to be thought of as constantly a self-conscious presentation for the purpose of clicks or likes. And then those clicks and likes are monetized in the context of influencers.
So, the young people today, I think, are growing up in a time where it is just part of their taken-for-granted reality that the self is a commodity and that's going to have profound consequences for understanding how power works, how norms work, when the kind of gender critiques that are were being done in the 90s… it's not the same. It's not the same. It’s not, “Are you being pathologized by your therapist?”—which is just reference to Eve Sedgwick again, where she also was like “I’m less worried about being pathologized by my therapist than my shrinking health coverage.” The world has changed around us, and it doesn't necessarily have to be all doom and gloom. I did just present, in a very doom kind of way, because I’m interested in the part that's going wrong; and I’m hoping to think about what can theory do in this next moment? where the self isn't what the self was in that 1970s moment when theory was critiquing and identifying how it worked.
SCHAFFERT: Well, that's a very satisfying answer, Brie. I don't know why you were nervous about it. We approve. (both laugh)
Does anybody have questions for Brie? You can just unmute yourself and speak right up. We'll pause for a second so you can.
(laughs) Stacey Waite is holding up the book. And family.
You know that when you're when your kids become teenagers, they're going to hold all of this against you, (laughs) “the expert on adolescence,” right?
OWEN: Well, what's so funny is that people always talk about their angelic children turning into teenagers, and things were said to me when I turned from 12 to 13, as well, like “Oh, you're a teenager now,” and obviously that scarred me deeply. But my children are… they are sassy. I mean, they are very… you know, people talk about the terrible twos, or there's a phrase called “threenager.” You know? I get that the social/relational dynamics and the problems get way more complex, and the stakes get way higher, but I actually think that’s a myth that small children are docile. I mean, maybe some people get lucky, and their children don't question you until they're like 11. I don't know. I haven't met anyone like that, but maybe it exists. (laughs) I don't want to give examples so as to not embarrass anyone who's on here.
But, you know I work very hard to think of the small people I live with as people, and also to let myself be a person, too; and that we have to negotiate that; and that I have a profound ethical responsibility to make space for them to be themselves, and also to respect myself. And that’s how we learn healthy boundaries. That's how we learn. I don't claim to be a professional at it at all (laughs) or to even be successful, but I’m curious what will happen when my kids are teenagers, and if they— you know, little kids say “I hate you, mommy,” too. So, yes, the game will get more elaborate, but I’ll be interested to see—how different will it be if I’ve made an effort from the start to give my kids space? I mean, maybe they just weren't that moldable to start with. So, we'll see. (laughs)
SCHAFFERT: How do you approach their reading? Like, what do you give them to read? What do you want them– do you have a sense of what– since you have studied YA and you have thoughts about it, are you going to involve yourself in that process of your kids finding books?
OWEN: Um, yes. Well, yet, I’m like how inappropriate is their reading? (laughs) With Max, when he was little, we only let him watch, like– we censored his TV watching quite a bit, mostly so that he wouldn't see heterosexual parents. So, a different goal than other people. And it was successful, in him believing that our family is normal and everyone else is weird. But with our younger one, she just watched everything he watched; and she knows all the potty words, and says stupid, and we've had some odd conversations in our house where she's like “No! Only a girl and a boy can get married” and then like our older one is like “NO! That is NOT true!” (laughs) And we’re like “Ollie!” Or, she's like “No! Only girls can wear skirts!” and we’re like “No!” Some of that normalization is really… I we think we let her watch Disney too young.
I think with very young kids, it's difficult to teach the critical reading skills that are needed to watch things that are super problematic. But I think that those critical reading skills are way more important than censoring or selecting media. As I’m saying that, though, I am thinking entirely of fiction and of, like, creative shows and movies. And I actually think that kids’ Youtube, and anything with an addictive algorithm, is incredibly dangerous. I know there were toy commercials in between our Saturday morning cartoons in the 80s, and those were also very problematic, but they did not operate at the same speed and intensity as trying to get a child to just click the next thing. And how disruptive that is to a nervous system, how addictive that is. We sort of figured out, by experience, that addictive algorithm. Or, there's all these kids’ shows on YouTube that are just toy porn, basically. They're just, like, other kids playing with new toys. And the toy companies pay for these kids to film themselves playing with new toys. And there's some versions of sort of kids’ reality TV that I like think operates in this way. There's this kid named Ryan. Poor Ryan; he's exploited. l shouldn't blame Ryan. But man, do I hate Ryan.
So there’s all these genres of media for consumption for small kids that is completely unfamiliar to anyone who grew up in the 80s and 90s (laughs) or 70s—like, completely unfamiliar—and that operates at a totally different level. And I’ve already had conversations with like my oldest, who's seven, about addiction; about what it's trying to do to you. And that's different. Or even, going into a store, that it's designed in a way to make you want things, make you buy things, and that we don't want to get played, basically. We want to be in charge of what we do. We want to have a reason.
So anyway, when it comes to a fiction or a full-length feature film, we do very little censorship or even monitoring screen time. But when it comes to stuff that's designed to be addictive, I get very, very nervous about what we're playing with and at what age it is with that kind of stuff.
SCHAFFERT: What are some of the YA novels that you recommend to students and other readers?
OWEN: Okay, so, I teach a lot of YA novels that I think are super problematic because I think it's really fun to teach them, and I rarely teach books that I love. But, hold on. I’m looking around because sometimes I read one that I love.
I taught a queer YA—I taught the 300-level, and I taught queer young adult—and in that, there were some that were very problematic, that we were like “this book is garbage, we should burn it.” (laughs) I almost want to, like, get up and walk over to my book shelf.
SCHAFFERT: You can! (laughs)
OWEN: The Moon was Ours is a beautiful book.
SCHAFFERT: Oh okay!
OWEN: As well as—hold on, I’m like, where's my pile?—Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. That's probably one that people know. It's also a gorgeous queer YA book. Juliet Takes a Breath is another beautiful book.
I read a book to my son, Max—well, sort of out of inexperience, because I just I love YA, and I read a lot of YA and study YA. The first novel I ever read to him was Holes, which they made a movie of. I’m sure most people are familiar with it. Anyway, it is a tad age-inappropriate for a seven-year-old—I had actually never read it before, so I read it while reading it to my seven-year-old, but—we had to stop and talk about racism for a second. But no harm in that. I cried while I was reading this book. I loved that book so much. It was so, so beautiful.
I also love some non-fiction. Kate Bornstein has a book called Hello Cruel World; the subtitle is 101 Alternatives to Suicide. It has a sort of critical introduction that does some gender theory—live-in-the-world theory—and I think it's an incredibly powerful book that treats young people, treats adolescents, as people, and is respectful. I think it's a controversial book, because some of the alternatives are things that are harmful, but when she frames it in terms of alternatives to suicide, it's an incredibly powerful acknowledgement of all of the different kinds of things we do to survive. It also is very explicit about how some of our coping mechanisms can do harm to ourselves, and that we can make choices to develop new ones or different ones; and it sort of rates all of the alternatives by like, their safety, and riskiness, and effectiveness. I think it's a really smart book. There’s nothing like it. So, that's another one.
My kids and I have also read– there’s a book called Sex is a Funny Word, and it's a sort of comic book style. And there is a picture book called What Makes a Baby that sort of does “how babies are made” kind of stuff, but divorced from heterosexual sex, so it's like “You need some things: an egg, a sperm, a uterus.” It's open enough that it allows for reproductive scenarios that are not just, like, mom and dad in the bedroom. Which– those books are so awkward. I’ve read a lot of those books and written about them. They're so awkward. Anyway, so, my kids and I have looked at that Sex is a Funny Word, and they are just coming out with one that's for older adolescents right now. It will come out next March.
So that's a grab bag of recommendations, I guess.
SCHAFFERT: Yeah. I need to task you with making a list for us to distribute to the world. I’ll express my gratitude: thank you so much for joining us and bringing all this deep thought along with you. We're all we're all smarter for it. So, thank you so much.
OWEN: Thank you so much for having me, Timothy, and thank you all for being here. This is just such an honor and I really appreciate it.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
STEPHEN RAMSAY, HOST:
Plainstate is produced by Erin Chambers. Our sound engineer is Stephen Ramsay. Our theme music is by Shadows on a River. On behalf of the Department of English at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, thank you for listening to the Plainstate podcast. Tagline forthcoming.