Encounters with biosocial power
Author: Kevin Ryan

Refiguring childhood stages a series of encounters with biosocial power, which is a specific zone of intensity within the more encompassing arena of biopower and biopolitics. Assembled at the intersection of thought and practice, biosocial power attempts to bring envisioned futures into the present, taking hold of life in the form of childhood, thereby bridging being and becoming while also shaping the power relations that encapsulate the social and cultural world(s) of adults and children. Taking up a critical perspective which is attentive to the contingency of childhoods – the ways in which particular childhoods are constituted and configured – the method used in the book is a transversal genealogy that moves between past and present while also crossing a series of discourses and practices framed by children’s rights (the right to play), citizenship, health, disadvantage and entrepreneurship education. The overarching analysis converges on contemporary neoliberal enterprise culture, which is approached as a conjuncture that helps to explain, and also to trouble, the growing emphasis on the agency and rights of children. It is against the backdrop of this problematic that the book makes its case for refiguring childhood. Focusing on the how, where and when of biosocial power, Refiguring childhood will appeal to researchers and students interested in examining the relationship between power and childhood through the lens of social and political theory, sociology, cultural studies, history and geography.

Children’s health and biosocial power
Kevin Ryan

This chapter examines the writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau. It focuses on how his critical social theory and his normative political theory meet as a conception of childhood that would come into sharper focus during the nineteenth century. The chapter also examines reformatory education and public hygiene, focusing on how the public health strategies were developed and deployed in Ireland. Both in terms of design and strategic objective, the penal reformatory school exemplified biosocial power in that it was deployed as a social technology to refashion life that had been deformed by social circumstances. The chapter looks at how the 'biosocial' apparatus has recently been reconfigured through a policy framework called Healthy Ireland, the purpose of which is to 'reduce health inequalities' by 'empowering people and communities'. It also looks at how the prescriptive thrust of Emile was made practical through a pedagogical form of philanthropy.

in Reframing health and health policy in Ireland
The medical and moral framing of ‘health’
Kevin Ryan

Chapter 6 presents a genealogy of reformatory education and public hygiene, focusing on how ‘health’ has come to traverse medical and moral conceptions of childhood, and how the figure of the healthy child – once configured as a ‘national asset’ – has since become a form of ‘capital investment’. Tracking this through the datafication of childhood, the core concern is how neoliberal enterprise culture has become a Procrustean bed, with biosocial power doing the work of fashioning life by empowering and supporting children in accordance with prescribed ‘outcomes’. The chapter concludes by taking up a critical perspective on the issue of obesity, examining the battle against childhood obesity as one of the ways in which neoliberal enterprise culture is immunised.

in Refiguring childhood
Kevin Ryan

Chapter 7 examines how ‘disadvantage’ has become a pervasive way of framing inequality, tracking this from the United States during the 1960s, where the theme of cultural deprivation gave rise to a series of experiments in compensatory education, through to the present, showing how the neuroliberal figuring of disadvantage sustains neoliberal enterprise culture. To this end the chapter explores how neuroliberalism is imbricated in philanthrocapitalism and the ‘first three years’ movement, the core message being that ‘the first three years last forever’, and that as a society we either ‘pay now or pay later’. In this scenario, biosocial power aims to reduce the future costs of crime, welfare dependency and teenage pregnancy by optimising the ‘brain architecture’ of children.

in Refiguring childhood
Kevin Ryan

Chapter 5 moves beyond the genealogical questioning of how we have come to be what we are. The question that follows is: ‘what are we in the process of becoming?’ In opening out this question, the chapter examines how biosocial power operates in the guise of empowerment, specifically in the form of children’s citizenship. Approaching citizenship (from Nikolas Rose) as a moral technology of discipline, the chapter focuses on how children’s citizenship has been configured in Ireland, where children have recently been incorporated into the policy process, initially as ‘active participants’, and subsequently as ‘active citizens in their own right’. The chapter uses the case study as a critical vantage point on the idea of the ‘Whole Child’ and the figure of the ‘resilient’ child, and concludes by presenting children’s citizenship as a form of biosocial empowerment that, on closer inspection, proves to be a mode of subjectivation.

in Refiguring childhood
Childhood between the prior to and the not yet
Kevin Ryan

Chapter 2 explores how childhood has become a means of projecting the present into the future and of making such imagined futures practical and technical. Drawing from Agamben’s analysis of the modern ‘anthropological machine’, the chapter presents childhood as a threshold spanning animal/human, nature/culture and voice/language, tracking this through a textual analysis of Rousseau, J. S. Mill, G. Stanley Hall, James Sully and Phillip Pettit. This in turn serves as the historical backdrop used in subsequent chapters, specifically in terms of examining how biosocial power is deployed in the form of playgrounds, children’s citizenship and children’s health initiatives, as a way of preventing or ameliorating disadvantage, and as entrepreneurship education.

in Refiguring childhood
Kevin Ryan

Chapter 4 extends the analysis of playgrounds in chapter 3, using contemporary public playgrounds and commercial play-centres as a vantage point on the framing of play as a right which is codified by Article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Anchoring the genealogical approach in chapter 3 to a specific context (a National Play Policy in the Republic of Ireland), this chapter takes up a critical perspective on the broader policy landscape, which in Ireland as elsewhere has been shaped by an ongoing process of neoliberalisation. It is this context that is shown to tension the relation between the right to play and the freedom to pay (to play).

in Refiguring childhood
Kevin Ryan

Chapter 3 commences the task of staging encounters with biosocial power in the form of social practices. The chapter begins by reviewing Norbert Elias’s The Civilising Process, as well as more recent Eliasian perspectives on a ‘de-civilising’ process, using this literature as an interpretative lens in commencing a genealogy of playgrounds. Examined as a biosocial technology, the playground is shown to originate as a pedagogical practice that (to borrow from governmentality theory) attempted to act upon the actions of children through a blend of carefully calibrated techniques, bounded space and purpose-built equipment, the strategic objective of which was to prefigure the future. The empirical focus of the chapter is early nineteenth century Britain and Progressive Era America.

in Refiguring childhood
Children as ‘architects of their futures’
Kevin Ryan

Chapter 8 stages an encounter with biosocial power in the form of entrepreneurship education, using the history of Junior Achievement Worldwide as a point of departure in examining how entrepreneurship education has become a ‘method’ aimed at cultivating ‘non-cognitive entrepreneurial competencies’ in school-going children from primary education onwards, and how this prefigures the future as an ‘enterprise culture’. Focusing on the relation between the normative fiction of an ‘entrepreneurial mindset’ and the material conditions underpinning ‘necessity entrepreneurship’, the chapter explores how ‘disadvantage’ has become the engine of enterprise and innovation. In the context of an enterprise culture, equal inequality becomes a horizon of opportunity.

in Refiguring childhood
Kevin Ryan

Chapter 9 poses the following question: might a natality-enhancing biopolitics somehow exist; a life-affirming biopolitics that doesn’t use children as raw material to prefigure contingent and contestable visions of the future? Using Hannah Arendt’s thoughts on ‘natality’, and bringing this into conversation with Deleuze and Guattari’s idea of ‘becoming-child’, and also Miguel Vatter’s work on ‘positive’ biopolitics, this concluding chapter reflects on what it might look like to refigure childhood as a way of reconfiguring biosocial power.

in Refiguring childhood