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Discussion: Child as Material with Mary Walling Blackburn, November 15th at e-flux


A child reads Lise Deharme’s Le Coeur de Pic (1937), a Surrealist book illustrated with photographs (like the above) by Claude Cahun.

From 12-3pm November 15th, e-flux will host Child as Material with artist Mary Walling Blackburn. The child-friendly event will begin at noon with a reading of children’s books by Rafael Kelman, Brian Kuan Wood, Beatriz Balanta, and Christopher Miles. A panel discussion on Child as Material for adults and a concurrent activity for children will follow at approximately 1:15pm. Panelists include Beatriz Balanta, Benj Gerdes, Jennifer Hayashida, and Christopher Myers, moderated by Brian Kuan Wood and Mary Walling Blackburn.

From the press release:

What forms, cultural and critical, are possible when the child is the material for the future? After all, children are stuck living our future as their present. And the messages we deliver to children through children’s books can only embody our hope that the forward movement of time will bring something better. But as adults, we have seen some difficult things. And sometimes it’s not so easy to get over ourselves. This is how, as an operative political device, children’s books become repositories for the traumatic experiences and cultural dead ends that adults cannot manage to overcome in the present time.

This thread will act as a meeting point for discussion about Child as Material for both the physical audience and our distant friends.

Some thoughts for consideration in advance of the event, courtesy Mary Walling Blackburn, Conversations username @mwb

1.) If we determine that the child is radical material, let us sketch the limits of that radicality.

If, as radicals, we profess and deploy productive perversities, how and why do they engage the child? Finally, how do we detect and absorb the perversities generated by the child herself along a spectrum of experiences (from child soldier and matricidal tween to emo ghost follower and runaway train hopper)?

2.) When is the “adult ally” in fact an obstacle to the infant provocateur?

For more information, see the program listing on e-flux.

Glenn Beck on Mary Walling Blackburn: "I have not seen something this evil since Nazi propaganda."

When asked to describe his own thoughts on the child as material Christopher Myers begins (on Saturday’s panel). He notes the wildly ideological statements one can get away with in the children’s book. “It is terrifying and beautiful”.


I include two images from An ABC for Baby Patriots(1898) that were not mentioned in the panel but elide with the project of colonization and its attention to the child subject, which was much discussed.

A contemporary US iteration, sourced by Jennifer Hayashida, another member of the panel, was a children’s book on drones (ages 8 and up).


I like this sentiment. On one hand it would make sense that children’s books are pedagogical tools, on the other they do seem, at times, like sites for runaway ideology. I was trying to think of some early examples of this to get a better idea of the form.

Wikipedia cites John Locke’s advocation of Aesop’s Fables:

Until the 18th century the fables were largely put to adult use by teachers, preachers, speech-makers and moralists. It was the philosopher John Locke who first seems to have advocated targeting children as a special audience in Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693). “Aesop’s fables, in his opinion are apt to delight and entertain a child. . . yet afford useful reflection to a grown man. And if his memory retain them all his life after, he will not repent to find them there, amongst his manly thoughts and serious business. If his Aesop has pictures in it, it will entertain him much better, and encourage him to read when it carries the increase of knowledge with it For such visible objects children hear talked of in vain, and without any satisfaction, whilst they have no ideas of them; those ideas being not to be had from sounds, but from the things themselves, or their pictures.”


Also, Der Struwwelpeter by Heinrich Hoffmann (1845) is an example of a children’s book intended to be instructional but is actually unsettlingly weird. The story hinges around children who disobey their parents and end up dying painful deaths because of and through their misbehavior. For example, Pauline, who played with matches, ended up burning to death.

When Minz and Maunz, the little cats, saw this,
They said, “Oh, naughty, naughty Miss!”"
And stretched their claws,
And raised their paws;
"Tis very, very wrong, you know;
Me-ow, me-o, me-ow, me-o!
You will be burnt if you do so,
our mother has forbidden you, you know. "

Now see! oh! see, what a dreadful thing
The fire has caught her apron-string;
Her apron burns, her arms, her hair;
She burns all over, everywhere.

English version here.


One of many questions raised on Saturday:

What is the exchange value of the child?

Dr. Beatriz Balanta posed this along with a discussion of Cornell Capa’s Mario, the photojournalist’s unpublished, photo-illustrated book from the 1950s-60s, which creates a certain narrative about a Quechuan boy in Peru.

Dr. Balanta shared her audio and visual intervention into the work with the audience of children and adults, and later detailed the book’s many problems and dimensions within the panel discussion.

The three photographs above are images of a maquette made from Capa’s photographs


At one point during the discussion, Benj Gerdes brought up the prevalence of anthropomorphized animals … with pets. The Tom Seidmann-Freud illustration above, from Buch Der Hasengeschichten (Book of Rabbit Stories) (1927), shows a rabbit-fish interaction perhaps along these lines. I wonder: What are some early animal-human- pet-owner notables from this longstanding tradition?

Christopher Myers, the renowned author and illustrator of children’s books (who’d earlier read aloud from a different Tom Freud book) picked up this thread and dropped a revelation that Sanrio recently and in official language insisted upon: Hello Kitty is not, in fact, a cat…


Heinrich Hoffman’s later (1858) drawing of Struwwelpeter gives the misbehaving one a different look:

Apparently Hoffman was working on his first major book on mental illness at the time.

“Hoffmann even managed to combine his literary and professional interests, using his stories and illustrations to help ease the fears of his younger patients.”


Not only were animals anthropomorphized, they were murderers put on trial. THE TRIAL OF AN OX, FOR KILLING A MAN from the late 18th century includes the animal court scene common in many fables. Another fun example is LES ANIMAUX MALADES DE LA PESTE (THE ANIMALS SICK OF THE PLAGUE ), published in 1678.

“An Ox was seized by the Dogs, and brought to trial, for having fored his Driver in such a brutal manner, in Smithfield Market, as caused his death. His trial was held at Quadruped Court, Beast Park, near the Pedestrian Hotel. The Lion sat as Judge.” (From Instruction to Delight, Patricia Demers).

THE TRIAL OF AN OX was produced as a chapbook, and cost a penny at publication.

Another title to note is AN ELEGY ON THE DEATH AND BURIAL OF COCK ROBBIN. Originally appearing in Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song-Book in 1744, COCK ROBBIN is a traditional illustrated nursery rhyme. Though there are still debates concerning the book’s origin, it is thought to comment on politics and power - particularly on the long ministry of Sir Robert Walpole (1675-1745). Without getting into particulars, it is clear that adult relationships have a long history of taking advantage of the child’s lower position in society to propagate a particular viewpoint or opinion. When using children’s material or children as a vehicle for propaganda, one is able to influence not only children but also those purchasing the material - their parents. This continues to be an issue in contemporary children’s publishing.

Here is the complete COCK ROBBIN:

Who killed Cock Robin?
I, said the Sparrow,
with my bow and arrow,
I killed Cock Robin.
Who saw him die?
I, said the Fly,
with my little eye,
I saw him die.
Who caught his blood?
I, said the Fish,
with my little dish,
I caught his blood.
Who’ll make the shroud?
I, said the Beetle,
with my thread and needle,
I’ll make the shroud.
Who’ll dig his grave?
I, said the Owl,
with my pick and shovel,
I’ll dig his grave.
Who’ll be the parson?
I, said the Rook,
with my little book,
I’ll be the parson.
Who’ll be the clerk?
I, said the Lark,
if it’s not in the dark,
I’ll be the clerk.
Who’ll carry the link?
I, said the Linnet,
I’ll fetch it in a minute,
I’ll carry the link.
Who’ll be chief mourner?
I, said the Dove,
I mourn for my love,
I’ll be chief mourner.
Who’ll carry the coffin?
I, said the Kite,
if it’s not through the night,
I’ll carry the coffin.
Who’ll bear the pall?
We, said the Wren,
both the cock and the hen,
We’ll bear the pall.
Who’ll sing a psalm?
I, said the Thrush,
as she sat on a bush,
I’ll sing a psalm.
Who’ll toll the bell?
I said the Bull,
because I can pull,
I’ll toll the bell.
All the birds of the air
fell a-sighing and a-sobbing,
when they heard the bell toll
for poor Cock Robin.

Here and in most children’s literature, rhyme serves a multipurpose: it is both a foundational tool for building reading skills, and also a strategy for engaging children. COCK ROBBIN is an early example of literature meant to instruct children in reading, while also serving as an example of the birth of a children’s book market featuring chapbooks and penny books - and also marks the beginnings of children reading for pleasure.


I think it is best to hesitate before ascertaining that the shared patina of Aesop’s Fables, and An ABC for Baby Patriots means that they are doing replicant work. Yes, both work the child…and operate within the belief structure that we can order the world through the ordering of children…but I have not yet teased out the application of the moral fable in relation to the project of colonialism.

My deliberate scouring of deep Internet archives for An ABC for Baby Patriots was to respond directly to the Balanta and Myers evocation of the colonial project in relationship to the child and I want to carefully keep that intact… that there is an entanglement of state and child and not something that is conveniently represented as something between community and infant, mama and bebe.


Beatriz Balanta continued this query, in regards to the use value of the child:
we need the child’s body to write the triumph of the revolution.
I begin to amalgamate examples of revolutions writ in child bodies…children as incorporated into the hippie commune, Post WW2 cultural revolutions structured through trauma (kinderladen and kibbutzim)…and so on.

The kinderladen and kibbutzim are particularly salient examples of the use value of the child, from the Frankfurt anti-authoratarian parent’s collective rising out of the social remains of post WW2 Germany to the shift in Israeli collective communities after the war. The child body is determined by larger social forces in both the inception and remains of both of these ideological convolutions.

"we need the child's body to write the triumph of revolution"

What comes to mind when reading your post is Michael Rosen’s “Sad Book”. Illustrated by Quentin Blake, and initially by the use of intense thematic structure, it tackles how to talk about the subject of death with children. Possibly, the incorporation of the subject into children’s literature and the broadcast of “let’s face the scariness together” is an initial desire to mature children earlier.

Michael Rosen’s book is by no means the first book to highlight loss and be dumped onto the lap of an eight year old. Take Pat Thomas’ “I Miss You” (2001), or Roald Dahl’s “James and the Giant Peach” (where James loses his parents in “35 seconds flat”).