Seminar in Cultural Studies: Narratives of Natal Separation: the Camp, Bare Life, and British Child Psychoanalysis

CRN, Course No., and Section: 79324/ENG 775/001: Seminar in Culture Studies:

Narratives of Natal Separation: the Camp, Bare Life, and Destructive Fantasies in British Child Psychoanalysis

Focus Designation: CSAP

Meeting Day, Time, Classroom: Tuesdays, 15:15-17:45 at Sakamaki B211

Instructor: Nandini Chandra

Course Description: This course takes a comparative look at narratives of forcible natal separation–targeting very young children–as a distinctive feature of modernity. The stories extend from American chattel slavery to the present-day separation of immigrant children from their parents under the Trump administration’s aggressive anti-immigration policies. We draw on films and literature of escaped slaves in the underground railroad system; the stolen generations of  indigenous children in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the US; their internment in “native schools;” the internment of Japanese-American children after Pearl Harbor; the Kindertransport which rescued 10,000 children from Nazi Germany and sent them to England, and the domestic evacuation of children from London to the countryside following the German bombing during the Second World War. The class will take its main cue from the British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott’s dark pronouncement that the domestic dislocation of children was far worse than if the children had simply died in the bombings. However controversial, the idea that we might prefer death over mere survival, interrogates a fundamental premise of contemporary existence steeped in what Agamben calls “bare life,” a condition of juridical exception in which life becomes palpably exposed to death especially in the form of the sovereign (such as in the concentration camp). But the state of exception is not limited to the camp alone, but constitutes the very norm of modern life, making it difficult to distinguish between totalitarian and democratic societies, free and coercive forms of labor. Under the event of “exception becoming law,” how are we to understand iterations of normative childhood? What is the analytic point of departure from which to evaluate spectacular transgressions of law and ethics on the one hand, and less visible forms of violence on the other?

This class will look at how biopolitics affects the structure of the modern family, individual subjectivity, as well as the imagination of school and education, in conjunction with questions of what are aesthetically “proper” approaches to representing childhood trauma and “bare life.” Alongside, we will look at the engagement of postwar British psychoanalysis with children’s fantasies of violence and destruction, conceived (for us perhaps counter-intuitively) as universal features of children’s psychological health (Winnicott and Klein) rather than an index per se of extraordinary trauma.

Primary Readings and Viewings

Margaret Tucker (1977). If Everyone Cared

Louise Erdrich (1984). Love Medicine. Excerpts.

Isao Takahata (1988). Grave of the Fireflies. 89 mins (Animation).

PBS (1999-2003). The Children of the Camps

W G Sebald (2001). Austerlitz

Phillip Noyce (2002). Rabbit-Proof Fence. 93 mins.

Walter Mosley (2005). 47

Saidiya Hartman (2006). Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route

Agnes Jack (2006). Behind Closed Doors: Stories from the Kamloops Indian Residential School

Ellen Levine (2007). Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad

Julie Summers (2011). When the Children Came Home: Stories of Wartime Evacuees

Steve McQueen (2013). 12 Years A Slave. 134 mins.

Daina Ramey Berry (2017). The Price for their Pound of Flesh

Learning Outcomes:

  • You will gain a better understanding of “biopolitics” in relation to the Marxist concepts of primitive accumulation and surplus population;
  • You will be able to identify and describe key concepts in British psychoanalysis as they emerge in the works of Freud, Melanie Klein, and Donald Winnicott: the depressive versus the paranoid schizoid position, the good enough mother, the “false self” etc. How can these ego-developmental theories grounded in the individual relate to the idea of wars and structural violence?
  • You will develop a comparatist framework in which literary and cultural representations from different parts of the world can be read both in their specificity as well as the governing abstraction of capital which encompasses them; how does the Asia-Pacific as a unique synthesis of the west and the non-west challenge our commonsensical understanding of a world divided culturally along the axes of an East and West?
  • You will develop the ability to place your own scholarly work within broader critical conversations, and to contribute to these conversations by conducting independent research;
  • You will gain experience delivering concise, informed, focused, and thought-provoking oral presentations to peers in the field.


  1. One oral presentation: 10 percent
  2. Close Reading of a scenario from one of the books or films. Three pages: 10 percent
  3. Close Reading of a Theoretical Essay: Three pages: 10 percent
  4. An Abstract Proposal involving independent research: Two Pages: 15 percent
  5. An Argument-Based Essay: 16 pages: 25 percent.

Attendance and Class Participation will cover 30 percent of the grade.