Child's Play: Psychoanalysis and the Politics of the Clinic

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In 1925, Sigmund Freud wrote a short preface for August Aichhorn’s forthcoming book, Wayward Youth. There, Freud hailed ‘the child’ as the future of psychoanalysis, declaring that “[o]f all the fields in which psychoanalysis has been applied none has aroused so much interest… as the theory and practice of child training. …The child has become the main object of psychoanalysis research” (Freud, p. v). Freud’s observation was prophetic as the figure of the child did indeed become the central focus of psychoanalysis’s theories of psychic life in the decades that followed. Throughout the interwar and postwar periods in Western Europe, child analysis became the most innovative and influential strain of psychoanalysis as child analysts turned their gaze, clinically and socially, to the formative impact of the mother-child relation. As I show, psychoanalysts used the figure of the child to expand the political reach of their work by mobilizing the clinic as a site through which to theorize politics.

In my dissertation, I analyze the ascension of the child as a way into a broader consideration of the political life of psychoanalytic practice in the twentieth century. In the wake of World Wars, mass casualties, and the dramatic reorganization of Europe, child analysts like Anna Freud, Melanie Klein, D.W. Winnicott, and John Bowlby reinvented clinical practice for the child patient according to explicitly political idioms. The analytic exercise of paternal "authority," the cultivation of maternal “reparations,” and the maternal facilitation of an inherent “democratic tendency,” and the provision of maternal “security” were just some of the ways that these child analysts defined their clinical work. Tracing these techniques through the rise and fall of democracy in interwar, wartime, and postwar Europe, I argue that the clinic became a proto-political laboratory where psychoanalysts experimented with different formats of political action and relation. For these analysts, the clinic was anything but apolitical. But, in contrast to analyses that address the abstract connotation of these terms, in my analysis I focus specifically on their gendered dimensions, revealing how political concepts like authority, reparation, democracy, and security were reconfigured in the clinic according to the perimeters of maternity and paternity. As I contend throughout, the child analytic clinic provided a site for explicitly gendered forms of political theorizing.

In Chapter One, “On Good Authority: Anna Freud, Child Analysis, and the Politics of Authority,” I chart how Anna Freud postulated the clinical necessity of paternal authority, situating her work within interwar political debates about the relationship between democracy and authority. In Chapter Two, “Beyond Repair: War, Reparation, and Melanie Klein’s Clinical Play Technique,” I interrogate the ethical status of Klein’s clinical idealization of maternal reparations by contextualizing them within wartime Britain and the effects of German reparations. Chapter Three, “Mothering a Nation: D.W. Winnicott, Gender, and the Postcolonial British Welfare State,” reads Winnicott’s “Piggle” case study in order to elaborate how Winnicott’s theories of good enough mothering and an inherent democratic tendency were grappling with the effects of British decolonization. In chapter four, “States of Security: John Bowlby, Cold War Politics, and Infantile Attachment Theory,” I reveal how the language of maternal security that Bowlby promoted in his clinical work buttressed a growing Cold War emphasis on national security.

Child’s Play contributes to a growing body of scholarship by feminist theorists, historians, and political theorists like Suzanne Stewart-Steinberg (2011), Sally Alexander (2012), Michal Shapira (2013), Eli Zartesky (2015), Daniel Pick and Matt ffytche (2016), and Dagmar Herzog (2017) that showcases how psychoanalysis was influenced by—and, in turn, had a decisive influence on—the political climates it inhabited. My project adds to this work an explicit focus on the psychoanalytic clinic and the gendered scientific techniques developed therein. Although the psychoanalytic clinic has often dismissed for being either politically isolated or irredeemably normalizing, one of the overarching arguments that I make throughout this project is that a keen attention to clinical technique—to the unique scientific methods analysts developed to relate to and treat the psyche of the modern child—is an invaluable resource for understanding the political reach of psychoanalysis. Critically, these child psychoanalytic vocabularies and techniques developed together with the spread of liberal democracies following World War I and, to the extent that they narrate modern political affiliations through psychological narratives of childhood, they are still at the forefront of fervent political contestations today.






Laubender, Carolyn (2017). Child's Play: Psychoanalysis and the Politics of the Clinic. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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