Reading Childishly: A Case Study

‘The Octonauts’is a BBC children’s television program in which a group of anthropomorphised animals undertake adventures as deep-sea explorers. In one episode, Peso the Penguin is required to investigate an area of ocean known to be the habitat of a ‘vampire squid’. Hearing the frightening name of the creature, Peso initially fantasizes about a terrifying Dracula-like monster, but this fear is put to rest when what Peso actually encounters is a cute and unthreatening little animal, who is far more nervous of the explorers than they are of him. The lesson, we suppose, is that our fearful anticipations are often unwarranted, those we think are out to get us have anxieties of their own, and names, language, and reputations are not always to be taken ‘literally’.

But at the heart of the experience of children’s shows like ‘The Octonauts’ is a disjunction between the secure and well-meaning life lessons they are intended to impart, and the more unpredictable ways in which they tend to be experienced by their target audience. Like the mathematician imagined by David Hume who reads ‘The Aeniad’ only for its tracing of the geography of the Mediterranean, or the neurologist Oliver Sacks’ brain-damaged patient who could recount the plot of ‘Anna Karenina’ without having any recollection of its characters, children are apt to put emphasis in surprising places in their reading. A minor character, an incident in flashback or a misunderstood figure of speech can be far more stimulating to a child than the advance of plot or the protagonists who solicit their identification. But why should this be?

Take the example of one particular five-year-old watching the ‘Vampire Squid’ episode of ‘The Octonauts’. During Peso’s horrible fantasy of what the vampire squid might be like, the child is blithely indifferent to what he sees on the screen. As Peso begins his undersea journey and the anticipation of the squid’s actual appearance builds, the child starts to become agitated. Finally, in what is intended to be the bathetic moment when the unremarkable little squid is revealed, the child in fact becomes truly frightened. This child’s investment, then, is a precise reversal of the intended rhythm of the episode. Instead of focussing on the reassuring movement from ‘scary’ to ‘harmless’, the child foregrounds the movement from ‘not there’ to ‘there’. The scene that is supposed to be frightening is treated with indifference because Peso is ‘just imagining’ it, while the intended reassuring surprise that the actual squid is rather cute is far less important to the child than the fact that the anticipated object of horror has arrived at all.

When an adult in the room tries to reassure the child that the squid has turned out be ‘just a silly octopus’, he vehemently denies this, crying ‘no! it’s the vampire squid!’. It is as if the fear inscribed in the name is more important than what is seen on the screen. While the child has little idea what the word ‘vampire’ means, it has become specially invested in as an object of fear in its own right. The theme of the object that does not live up to the seriousness of the name is a relatively common one in comedy. Peter Cook’s grave priest in ‘The Princess Bride’ who opens his mouth to reveal an absurdly squeaky voice, or the former lover Diane Keaton builds up as a kind of Casanova figure but who turns out to be a squat balding geek in Woody Allen’s ‘Manhattan’ are two cases in point. But it would be patronising to say that in our case the five-year-old has simply failed to ‘get’ the joke.

In fact what is dramatised in this scene of childish reading is what we might call the Oedipal relation to the signifier. According to Jacques Lacan, what Freud had called ‘the dissolution of the Oedipus complex’ has less to do with the old psychoanalytic idea of a literal waning of the child’s aggressive fear of punishment for his or her incestuous fantasies, than with an unconscious acceptance of the metaphorical ‘name-of-the-father’: the anchoring signifier at the centre of a person’s relationship to language. For Lacan, the outcome of failing to undertake this anchorage in adulthood may be paranoia, which means anxiously attaching too much significance to every little thing that gets said; or schizophrenia, which means being incapable of distinguishing between figures of speech, irony and multiple meanings of words. Accepting the fixing power of language is what allows most adults to adopt an easygoing distance towards it, whereas these psychotics in whom the anchoring signifier has failed are doomed to indiscriminately assume meaning to be everywhere.

The same is true for a young child in whom the socialising strictures of language have not yet been fully instilled. This is why such children will often veer from taking transgressive pleasure in nonsense songs, to insisting that a favourite story be retold with no single detail out of place, or that completely peripheral parts of their daily routine must be followed to the letter. Like adult psychotics, they are unsure where the emphasis of meaning is to be placed.  It is also what has happened for our child who is insisting on the frightfulness of the vampire squid simply on account of its name. While shows like ‘The Octonauts’ work hard to introduce sound lessons for young audiences, they can never quite predict what unexpected part of their discourse the Oedipal child is liable to ‘take literally’ in this way.


Illustrated by Jospeh P. Kelly. Check out his work here:


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