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Childhood, heterotopias, videogames and other leisures

December 12, 2011

I’m not really working on VM Jones’s The Karazan Quartet just now, but an article by Sara McNamee seems to provide a relevant theoretical base for analysing this series, so I’m going to highlight the relevant bits:

Childhood Studies: 

McNamee starts by commenting: “Jenks (1996) has argued that childhood is constructed as ‘different’ from adulthood, and I would argue that such a construction allows the boundaries around childhood to be policed and controlled.” (p479) “This article,” she explains, “discusses some of the boundaries (especially spatial and gendered boundaries) around childhood and the ways in which a focus on children’s leisure allows us to see the strategies of escape from and resistance to control which children employ in their everyday social lives.” (p479)

McNamee then points to the perception of childhood as a homogenous, non-gendered sphere, writing that “‘childhood’studies conceal the ways in which gender operates to shape the differential experience of childhood for girls and boys.  While listening to children’s voices, and taking children as competent social actors is an important first step in claiming a conceptual space for childhood, it often tends to assume (even where the analysts disclaim it) that ‘children’ are a homogeneous group.” (p480) Importantly, according to McNamee: “It has been said that ‘The child, the family and domestic space need to be considered together in order to understand the role of boundaries in childhood’(Sibley, 1995: 28).” (p490)

McNamee’s article, in her own words “begins from a position quite opposite to that adopted by Postman. Postman (1983) has argued that childhood is disappearing, and that the dividing line between childhood and adulthood is being eroded because of the accessibility of television and other leisure technologies. He takes the pessimistic view that childhood is on a ‘journey to oblivion’(Postman, 1983: 149) mainly because there is nothing left to conceal from children, no ‘mysteries’for adults to reveal when adults think proper. The adult world is available to them through television at any time:

The new media environment that is emerging provides everyone, simultaneously, with the same information . . . electronic media finds it impossible to withhold any secrets. Without secrets, of course, there can be no such thing as childhood. (Postman, 1983: 80)

What in fact Postman means is that without adult control, there can be no such thing as childhood. This argument is erroneous. Far from disappearing, the category of ‘childhood’is instead increasing, both in its boundaries and dimensions.” (p482)

“Spatial boundaries around childhood:

‘The central issue to be explored in relation to childhood space is . . . that of control’ (James et al., 1998: 38). Here I want to explore some of the ways in which public/private space (such as the street, the home) has been previously gendered. The public space of girls and young women has been subject to much stricter parental supervision than that of young men, due to perceptions of the risk of assault and attack for young women on the street (McRobbie, 1991: 12). More recently, however, it may be that there are similar parental fears about the safety of boys and young men on the streets, especially in the wake of the Jamie Bulger murder. Indeed Valentine (1997) found in her research that there is considerable complexity in parents’views about letting their children out on the streets. Valentine states:

Traditionally girls have been perceived as more at risk in public spaces than boys. Significantly, however, this research suggests that parents hold a more complex and contradictory view of gender and siblings than previous studies have suggested. In particular, girls appear to be perceived as more capable of negotiating public space safely than boys, because they are perceived to have greater self-awareness, sexual maturity and a sense of responsibility than their brothers. In a reversal of ‘traditional’ constructions of masculinity, boys are perceived as innocent, irrational, irresponsible, and as increasingly vulnerable to violence from peers and adolescents. (Valentine, 1997: 57)

Nava however notes that:

Girls are less of a problem on the streets because they are predominantly and more scrupulously regulated in the home. It is therefore not only through the family, but also through the interaction of girls with boys outside it, that the femininity and thus the policing of girls is assured. (Nava, 1992: 79–80)

By this she means that boys are at risk of attack mainly from other boys, as Valentine (1997) notes, in that it is not socially appropriate for girls to exhibit aggressive behaviour, nor is it appropriate for boys to attack girls. Nava (1992) argues that girls and boys police each other with relation to gendered roles. It is this relation between boys and girls which are important for Nava in negotiating space on the street/in the youth club.

Büchner, discussing childhood in West Germany, notes the control which adults exert over the games children play and the public space they occupy:

. . . ‘Taking Possession’ of a social space thus ensues under the protective accompaniment and control of adults. Road and traffic conditions force urban children away from playing in the street with the result that independent and unsupervised opportunities for social contacts are less available. Children’s street world, formed relatively independently and composed of children from a variety of backgrounds and age groups, is increasingly replaced by integration into various peer-group social sets, often chosen and supervised by parents for particular purposes and activities. (Büchner, 1990: 79; emphasis in original)”

(p481 – almost the entire page in fact!) McNamee adds here that “It is not only road and traffic conditions in this country which force children away from the streets, but parental fears of crime and violence….” (pp481-482)

“Foucault’s argument is that policing is not necessary, once discourses of normalization are constructed: ‘He [sic] who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power . . . he becomes the principle of his own subjection’(Foucault, 1977: 202–3). Rojek (1985) thus posits some questions which may be asked in order to examine leisure practices using a Foucauldian perspective:

• What images of healthy and unhealthy leisure exist in society?

• How does the discourse on leisure relate to practice?

• How does leisure conceal and reveal the operation of power in society?” (p481)

Foucault and the heterotopia:

“Foucault (1977) has said little on space, but one of his ideas may be useful in this context. He discusses the notion of ‘utopia’and ‘heterotopia’(Foucault, 1986: 24). Autopia is a site with no real place, it is an analogy – an inversion, or a direct representation of, a real space in society. A heterotopia is, he argues, a real place which is like a counter-site – ‘a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites are simultaneously represented, con- tested and inverted’. The study of heterotopias could provide ‘a sort of mythic and real contestation of the space in which we live’ (Foucault, 1986: 24) he states.” (p483) Examples include the ship and the cinema “in that it is ‘an odd room where on a 2D screen a 3D space is projected’ (Foucault, 1986: 25)” (p484) as well as, according to McNamee, video games.

“the playing of video games by children,” according to McNamee “can be seen as a strategy for contesting spatial boundaries, arguing that a video game is a kind of heterotopy – it can be seen as a place without a place, where on a 2D screen (or monitor) a (sometimes) 3D unreal, inverted and mythical space is there for the player to control and contest. This article shows that while heterotopias exist for girls and boys, they exist in different spaces and through different leisure activities.” (p484) A child who enjoys a video game is, McNamee explains, in a “real place (his bedroom) engaging with a real piece of technology, but the space in which he experiences and enjoys the game is not real. It is a heterotopia – one of Foucault’s ‘other spaces’– not a real space.” (p485)

Video Games and control: 

In a personal communication with McNamee, S. “Gottschalk argues that the playing of video games provides an inversion of everyday life, where:

The video game inverts the passive viewer–screen relation by allowing the player to intervene, and to exercise some control over the pace and unfolding of the electronic text. These characteristics allow a momentary sliding of power from the outside world to the self. (Gottschalk, n.d.: 7)” (p484)

McNamee argues that “children’s space has become subject to further and further control – playing with video games may, then, provide those who play them with the adventures that they are no longer allowed to have, in spaces which they do not inhabit in any real sense.” (p485)

She points out that “playing video games allows children and young people a sense of competency and escape” but are also “important in promoting and sustaining boys’friendships through providing a space for both communication and shared activity” (p486).  She writes: “The child playing a video game is in a sense in momentary control of his or her destiny – dying, the ultimate fate over which we have no control, is experienced as something that can be avoided (by playing the game well), or that can be overcome (because in a video game you get several lives, and when these are used up you can start over again). The future for children is uncertain (James, 1993; James and Prout, 1997) and here it can be to some extent controlled.” (p486) The importance of role play/ play as reality is also discussed by McNamee (and worth reading).

McNamee’s own research indicated that while inside leisure was predominantly provided by TV and video games for boys, girls also enjoyed reading and listening to music – leisure activities deemed more ‘educational’ by parents and, so, less in need of policing (pp487+).  Such spaces of leisure, McNamee argues  “are not bounded by anything other than the child’s imagination. The bounded space of everyday life is transformed by some of the leisure activities I discuss into unbounded imagination which inverts the everyday life of the child. Through entering into some of the ‘other’ spaces I have discussed, it is possible for children to escape the boundaries around childhood.” (p490)

A slight aside:

It is perhaps worth noting that other texts, such as Harry Potter, have been analysed according to Foucault’s theory of heterotopia (Cantrell, Sarah (2011) ‘’I Solemnly Swear I Am up to No Good’: Foucault’s Heterotopias and Deleuze’s Any-Spaces-Whatever in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Series’ Children’s Literature: Annual of The Modern Language Association Division on Children’s Literature and The Children’s Literature Association39; 195-212, 312). NB also MICHAEL ONDAATJE’S ANIL’S GHOST  (Victoria Burrows (2008) ‘The Heterotopic Spaces of Postcolonial Trauma in Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s GhostStudies in the Novel 40(1&2); 161-177)


Ref: Sara McNamee (2000) ‘Foucault’s Heterotopia and Children’s Everyday Lives’ Childhood 7(4); 479-492

NB. McNamee also references the following works, which might equally provide lines of enquiry (some of them being now quite old!):

Brown, J.D., C.R. Dykers, J.R. Steele and A.B. White (1994) ‘Teenage Room Culture: Where Media and Identities Intersect’, Communication Research21(6): 813–27.

Büchner, P. (1990) ‘Changes in the Social Biography of Childhood in the FRG’, in L. Chisholm, P. Büchner, H. Kruger and P. Brown (eds) Childhood, Youth and Social Change, pp. 71–84. London: Falmer.

De Certeau, M. (1988) The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Foucault, M. (1977) Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison.London: Penguin Books.

Foucault, M. (1986) ‘Of Other Spaces’, trans. J. Miskowiec, DiacriticsSpring: 22–7.

Gailey, C.W. (1993) ‘Mediated Messages: Gender, Class and Cosmos in Home Video Games’, Journal of Popular Culture27(1): 81–97.

Gordon, C. (1980) Michel Foucault: Power/Knowledge.Hemel Hempstead: Harvester.

James, A. (1993) Childhood Identities: Self and Social Relationships in the Experience of the Child.Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

James, A. and A. Prout (eds) (1997) Constructing and Reconstructing Childhood: Contemporary Issues in the Sociological Study of Childhood.Basingstoke: Falmer Press.

James, A., C. Jenks and A. Prout (1998) Theorizing Childhood.Cambridge: Polity Press.

Jenks, C. (1996) Childhood.London: Routledge.

Larson, R. (1995) ‘Secrets in the Bedroom: Adolescents’ Private Use of Media’, Journal of Youth and Adolescence 24(5): 535–50.

Lechner, F.J. (1991) ‘Simmel on Social Space’, Theory, Culture and Society8: 195–210.

McNamee, S. (1998a) ‘Youth, Gender and Video Games: Power and Control in the Home’, in G. Valentine and T. Skelton (eds) Cool Places: Geographies of Youth Culture, pp. 195–206. London: Routledge.

Selnow, G.W. (1984) ‘Playing Videogames: the Electronic Friend’, Journal of Communication 34(2): 148–56.

Sibley, D. (1995) ‘Families and Domestic Routines: Constructing the Boundaries of Childhood’, in S. Pile and N. Thrift (eds) Mapping the Subject: Geographies of Cultural Transformation, pp. 123–37. London: Routledge.

Spence, J. (1990) ‘Youth Work and Gender’, in T. Jeffs and M. Smith (eds) Young People, Inequality and Youth Work, pp. 69–98. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Valentine, G. (1997) ‘“My Son’s a Bit Dizzy.” “My Wife’s a Bit Soft.”: Gender, Children and Cultures of Parenting’, Gender, Place and Culture4(1): 37–62.

Valentine, G. and J. McKendrick (1997) Children’s Outdoor Play: Exploring Parental Concerns about Children’s Safety and the Changing Nature Of Childhood’, Geoforum 28(2): 219–35.


From → Jones V.M.

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